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Numbers That Are Less Than They Seem

April 28, 2011
2:36 pm

As the Ryan and Obama 2012 budget proposals square off against each other, we’re seeing an increase in polling stories, the news media using public opinion surveys to ascertain whether the public favors revamping the Medicare system or leaving it largely as it is.

So, what do these surveys tell us?

In reality, not a whole lot.

One of the top journalists on the healthcare beat, Julie Rovner, discusses this on “Shots,” National Public Radio’s health blog.  As she points out, with just a little prompting in the form of creative wordsmithing on survey questions, public opinion can go through some drastic swings.

As she reports, the Kaiser Family Foundation survey team found that 50 percent of Americans want to keep Medicare as it is today, while 46 percent support changing to a system in which beneficiaries could choose their insurance from a list of private plans with government providing financial support.

Those numbers change considerably, though, when the question is re-phrased.  When respondents are told that reform will preserve the program for future generations and allow seniors to choose plans based on cost and quality, support for reform goes up to 54 percent.  When told, however, that changing the system will result in ending Medicare as we know it and seniors paying more out-of-pocket for fewer benefits, opposition jumps to 68 percent.

So what’s the takeaway from this experiment?  It’s hard to come to any other conclusion other than the various Medicare reforms being debated are still too new and unfamiliar to the public for hard opinions to be formed.

Or, as Ms. Rovner said, we shouldn’t “take much stock in the findings of any single poll on anything as complex as nuanced changes to Medicare.”

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