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Kaiser Health Tracking poll finds Americans struggle with health care


MENLO PARK, Calif. While politicians debate healthcare reform on Capitol Hill, the everyday American visiting the pharmacy on the corner of Main and Main is still struggling with health care, according to the latest Kaiser Health Tracking Poll released Tuesday.

One-third of Americans say they or someone in their household has had problems paying medical bills over the past year. That is up 900 basis from August and represents the highest level this measure has reached in nearly a year.

The proportion who report difficulty meeting their medical expenses is substantially higher among certain demographic groups, including: the uninsured (62% have had problems paying medical bills in the past 12 months); those with health problems (55%); those making less than $30,000 per year (47%); African-Americans (46%); and Hispanics (45%).

A majority of Americans (56%) also said they have put off care over the last 12 months because of cost reasons, with many saying that they had relied on home remedies or over-the-counter drugs instead of seeing a doctor (44%), skipped dental care or other checkups (35%) or skipped a recommended medical test or treatment (28%).

So Americans are tuning into the healthcare reform debate with genuine interest. With regard to tackling healthcare reform, 57% of Americans now believe that the healthcare debate is of utmost importance today, and the proportion of Americans who think their families would be better off if health reform passes is up 600 basis points (42% versus 36% in August), and the percentage who think that the country would be better off is up 800 basis points (to 53% from 45% in August).

The component that draws among the strongest support across the political spectrum is requiring that health insurance companies cover anyone who applies, even if they are sick or have a preexisting condition. Overall, 8-in-10 people support that idea, including 67% of Republicans, 80% of independents and 88% of Democrats.

When it comes to paying for reform, 57% of the public say they would support “having health insurance companies pay a fee based on how much business they have” and 59% would support “having health insurance companies pay a tax for offering very expensive policies.” In both cases, Republicans are evenly divided while Democrats and political independents tilt in favor. The poll did not test arguments for and against the policies.

Some commentators believe that proposals to obtain savings in the Medicare program are driving opposition among seniors. The survey finds that a plurality of seniors (49%) opposed the idea of limiting future increases in Medicare provider payments as a way to help pay for health care reform. But a solid majority (59%) would back the same limits if they were framed as helping to “keep Medicare financially sound in the future.”

People say they would be more likely to support a new reform proposal if they heard it would:

  • Improve health care for our children and grandchildren (77%);
  • Provide financial help to buy health insurance to those who need it (74%);
  • Help ensure the long-term financial health of Medicare (69%);
  • Fulfill a moral obligation by ensuring that people don’t have to go without needed health care just because they can’t afford it (68%); and
  • Mean that people with a history of illness would not be denied coverage and could get it at the same price as healthier people (65%).

Conversely, people say they would be less likely to support a new reform proposal if they heard that it would:

  • Limit choice of doctors (65%);
  • Reduce the quality of care provided to seniors under Medicare (63%);
  • Result in payment cuts that might make doctors less willing to take Medicare patients (62%);
  • Get the government too involved in your personal health care decisions (59%); and
  • Increase people’s insurance premiums or other out-of-pocket costs (57%).

The survey was designed and analyzed by public opinion researchers at the Kaiser Family Foundation and was conducted Sept. 11 through Sept. 18, 2009, among a nationally representative random sample of 1,203 adults ages 18 and older. Telephone interviews conducted by landline (801) and cell phone (402, including 147 who had no landline telephone) were carried out in English and Spanish.

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