Policy-ish

Where Is The Public On Medicare? Depends How You Ask The Question

Depending on which side of the debate you're on, you can point to a poll right now that shows support for making major changes to the Medicare program, and one that shows major opposition.

How come? Mostly because the questions used different wording.

Last week's New York Times/CBS poll, for example, found 57 percent of respondents agreeing that it would be "necessary" to make changes to Medicare to reduce the budget deficit, compared to 34 percent who thought those changes unnecessary.

A Washington Post/ABC poll, however, found a whopping 78 percent of respondents somewhat or strongly opposed "cutting spending on Medicare...in order to reduce the national debt."

What's even more interesting, however, according to a new study published today by the polling team at the Kaiser Family Foundation, is just how malleable public opinion on the subject of Medicare is, depending on how much people are told about the various proposals on the table.

Kaiser's own monthly tracking poll for April shows just how easily the tide can turn on as sensitive a subject as changing Medicare.

First, respondents were asked whether Medicare "should continue as it is today, with the government providing health insurance and guaranteeing the same set of benefits in the program, OR Medicare should be changed to a system in which people choose their insurance from a list of private health plan...and the government pays a fixed amount towards that cost."

That's roughly the choice between the status quo and the budget designed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., and approved by the House earlier this month.

The initial response was 50 percent wanting to keep Medicare as is, and 46 percent opting for change.

But the Kaiser survey team went a step further. Of those who said they wanted to keep Medicare intact, they explained that the changes "will help reduce the federal budget deficit and save Medicare for future generations by encouraging private health plans to compete for seniors' business and allowing seniors to choose plans based on cost and quality."

That boosted support for changes significantly, to 54 percent for and 39 percent against.

Similarly, they asked those who initially said they supported the change what they thought about the changes envisioned by the GOP. The changes would "eliminate traditional Medicare, put private insurance companies in charge of the health benefits people on Medicare receive, and cause seniors to pay more for their health care or get fewer benefits."

That made an even bigger difference, spiking opposition to Medicare changes up to 68 percent, and lowering those who still said they supported changes to 24 percent.

That makes two things clear, say the Kaiser experts. One, which should be obvious, is not to take much stock in the findings of any single poll on anything as complex as nuanced changes to Medicare.

The other, they say, is that you should expect to hear a lot more from both sides about Medicare in the days and weeks to come. "The findings... suggest that whichever side does a better job getting its arguments across to the public may ultimately gain the upper hand, at least from a public opinion standpoint," they say.

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