Close Votes in Reader Presidential Survey Results

The polls are open in New Hampshire, but they’ve closed on the first Alan Katz Health Care Reform Blog Unscientific Presidential Survey (the AKHCRBUPS, for short). And while we won’t know who won in the Granite state for awhile, we can now report on the winners, and losers, among this blog’s readers.

Republicans: Respondents gave a plurality of their first place votes to former-Mayor Rudy Giuliani takes the top spot followed closely by Senator John McCain who, in turn, was just ahead of former Governor Mike Huckabee. Former front-runner and former Governor Mitt Romney finished a distant fourth.

The survey asked participants to list their second and third choice. Weighting the results (first place = 3, second place =2 and third place =1), however, doesn’t change the order of the finish, although Governor Romney does move closer to the pack as does former Senator Fred Thomas. 

The comments provided by respondents showed some Republicans displeased with their choices this election cycle. As one Republican put it, “It just might be the first time I won’t go to the polls during the primary season.”

Republicans were asked whether they “would be willing to support a Democratic candidate in the general election” and, if so, which one. A majority said no. But of those who said yes, Senator Barack Obama was their top choice, followed by former Senator John Edwards.

Democrats: Senator Hillary Clinton would be the Comeback Kid of 2008 if New Hampshire follows the AKHCRBUPS results. She tied Senator Obama for the top spot as the first choice among Democrats. Yep, tied. (They were right, every vote does count!) Senator Edwards was a distant third.

When second and third choice votes are taken into account, Senator Obama squeaks out a win over Senator Clinton. Senator Edwards and Governor Bill Richardson makes strong moves, however, with Senator Edwards coming in just ahead of the Governor. Governor Richardson seems to impress more people than are voting for him. One supporter of Senator Clinton said, “I think Richardson is being overlooked. His … national experience would be a BIG help should he be elected.” Is this the start of a Clinton/Richardson boomlet? (Probably not, but I though it was interesting.)

Good news for the GOP: When asked if, and who, Democrats would support among the Republicans, the majority said yes. Of these, Senator McCain edges out Mayor Giuliani followed, at a distance, by Representative Ron Paul.

Independents: Those who identified with neither major party got to select their preferences among all the GOP and Democratic candidates. Senator Obama was the clear winner here.

The Issues: When asked what “the two most important issues you will consider in determining which candidate to support for president,” survey participants cited the Economy as their most important issue, followed by Health Care Reform and Terrorism/National Security and then Tax Policy. Iraq was on the list, but not as high as in national polls, not suurprising given the subject matter of this blog. When second choices taken into account, the standings don’t change, but the Economy moves even further ahead while Iraq gets closer to the pack. Yet, the comments would indicate that all of these issues matter. As one respondent put it, “So which one do you pick? Holy cow!! Most all of them are crucial.”

My thanks to all of you who participated n this survey. We’ll do at least one more as the vote in California approaches.  These polls may not be scientific, but they’re fun!

Health Care Reform and Iowa

With Iowans going to caucus today it’s tempting to write about how this marks the beginning of journey toward national health care reform. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. The impact of Iowa on the health care reform debate will be minimal. To be sure, there will be exit polls parsing the issues that matter to voters (health care will be high on the list). In reality, however, the positions of the candidates within each party are too similar to be sway many voters one way or the other.

On the Democratic side, the health care reform plans outlined by Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, former-Senator John Edwards, and Governor Bill Richardson are fairly similar. They all seek to reduce the uninsured through expansion of public programs. They all have cost containment provisions. The only differences are that Senator Clinton and Senator Edwards would require all consumers to obtain coverage. Senator Obama focuses more on affordability issues and Governor Richardson’s proposal avoids the creation of new bureaucracies.

On the Republican side Senator John McCain, former-Governors Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, and former-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani all seek to increase the number of Americans with medical coverage through tax incentives and fewer restraints on the private sector. Even Governor Romney has backed away from the heavy government role he championed in Massachusetts.

Once the general election is engaged the differences between Democrats and Republicans on health care will move front and center. That’s then. For now, even though voters are concerned about the issue, it won’t greatly impact the results coming out of Iowa.

There will be one interesting dynamic to watch, however. In Iowa, independents can choose to attend the caucus of either party. If exit polls show unaffiliated voters made their choice of caucus because of a candidate’s stand on health care reform it would provide important insight on which party’s approach is resonating with swing voters. 

That today’s caucuses in Iowa are unlikely to provide much insight into voters thinking about health care reform doesn’t make them any less interesting. They kick off the most unusual presidential election in generations. For the first time since 1928 no sitting president or vice president is on the ballot. Then there’s the sheer number of possible “firsts” we may witness. Senator Clinton could be the first woman president? Senator Obama could be the first African American to hold the office? Governor Romney is seeking to be the first Morman elected president and Mayor Giuliani wants to be the first Italian chief executive. The list goes on, but you get the idea.

And think of the possible match-ups in November. The nominees could both be New Yorkers (Senator Clinton and Mayor Giuliani). Far more interesting would be having the Republican most willing to work with Democrats (Senator McCain) facing off against the Democratic most willing to work with Republicans (Senator Obama). Then there would be the most ironic match-up: Governor Romney versus Senator Edwards — two wealthy, out-of-office white guys with perfect haircuts.

Iowa matters — just not so much concerning health care reform. Regardless of the match-up the next 11 months will be exciting. OK, not if we get stuck with Romney versus Edwards, but let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

Health Care Reform, Polls and Presidential Politics

Bill Robinson, a Palm Springs insurance agent and voracious researcher on health care reform issues, recently circulated a gem of an article concerning a seeming contradiction in how Americans view the health care system. The gist of the article,  posted in November by The Century Foundation and written by Maggie Mahar, is that Americans consistently denigrate the health care system while simultaneously claiming, by huge majorities, that it works just fine for them, thank you.

Comparing results from several polls, Ms. Mahar identifies this apparent discrepancy as resulting from Americans’ satisfaction with their own current health care coverage, but insecurity about how long they’ll be able to maintain it. With premiums rising, coverage contingent on sometimes precarious employment and, if I can add to Ms. Mahar’s list, politicians constantly claiming the system is broken beyond repair, widespread insecurity is not surprising.

At the same time, there are plenty of polls showing that people don’t have a lot of confidence in how Washington runs things, either. This creates an interesting quandary for presidential candidates. Most voters feel the system needs substantive changes, yet they don’t trust the government to make things better.

It’s no surprise then, that none of the major Democratic presidential candidates have called for a government-run single payer system. Instead they call for plans that expand the size and scope of public programs to varying degrees, but preserves the private system. There are differences between the plans: Senator Barack Obama focuses on affordability, Senator Hillary Clinton, former-Senator John Edwards and Governor Bill Richardson place more emphasis on universal coverage, with Governor Richardson distinguishing himself by avoiding the creation of any new bureaucracies.

What’s significant, however, is that the second most oft used phrase by the candidates is that “no one will have to give up their current insurance if they don’t want to.” (Still holding strong in first place is “The system is broken.”) The Democratic candidates, consequently, get to have it both ways, to a degree. They get to say they’re going to fix the current system with new regulations and public programs, but they’re going to preserve private sector involvement. This may play well in the general election, but it’s not likely to excite many of the more strident constituents of the Democratic party who will accept nothing less than a single-payer system (cue the California Nurses Association).

Republican candidates face a different challenge. They have an aversion to new taxes (or cutting back on existing tax cuts). And they don’t like turning private sector services over to the government. So they focus more on affordability with few, if any, new public programs. This addresses the “my coverage is fine” dynamic the polls identified, but it doesn’t face up to the demand for change. The result is the inverse of the Democrats’ dillema: the Republican candidates’ positions will get them through the primary season all right, but it’s going to look weak after the conventions.

As the Kaiser Family Foundation surveys and other polls have shown, health care is one of the most important issues voters expect presidential candidates to address. And as Ms. Mahar points out, the polls also indicate a nuanced understanding of the issue by voters. Since the candidate’s messages must be equally nuanced, their positions tend to clump together, with obvious differences between the parties. Consequently, the specifics of the candidates’ health care proposals are not likely to be decisive in garnering support, at least not early in the primary season. What will be more important than specifics is how their proposals reinforce their core messages.

Senator Edwards, for instance, needs to show that his plan will help the poor and middle class. Which is why he emphasizes universal coverage. Senator Clinton’s program needs to underscore her claim of competency and experience, which she does by highlighting the differences between this plan and the one she pushed in her husband’s administration. Senator Obama represents a break with the past, which means his opponents do him a favor by attacking his plan. And Governor Richardson brings to the campaign broad government experience at the state and federal level. His plan underscores this by redeploying and expanding existing public programs, not creating new ones.

The importance of the health care reform issue, and of the candidates plans, will change over time. For now, however, they are mirrors of the candidates’ themes.  Which, given the seeming contradictions in the polls, is no doubt the wisest political strategy.

Chances for Meaningful Health Care Reform Dim as Positions Harden

Unions and others have decided it’s their way or the highway when it comes to health care reform. According to the Los Angeles Times, these interest groups are mounting a full-on campaign to defeat Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s health care reform package. Their campaign will include prayer vigils, television ads and demonstrations at the Governor’s public appearances. Joining the California Federation of Labor will be organizations like Health Access, Consumers Union and It’s Our Healthcare! Their main argument is that the Administration’s plan gouges the middle-class by requiring every resident to obtain health care coverage, but failing to provide sufficient subsidies to enough residents. For example, while the Governor would offer tax credits to households with annual income of 350 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (about $72,000); the coalition wants this eligibility level to at least 400 percent of the FPL (a bit more than $82,600) — which is a bit lower than the $103,000 target union officials mentioned last week. They also maintain California’s businesses pay too little of the funding toward the state’s health care system under the Governor’s plan.

So the gloves are now off and rationale debate is about to flee the scene (demonstrations and prayer vigils rarely lend themselves to civil, reasoned discussions). Passing health care reform during the current special legislative session was a tough assignment to begin with. Given Labor’s influence with the Democratic majority, this turn of events virtually eliminates any chance of responsible health care reform any time soon.

Reform is not impossible, however. Governor Schwarzenegger can be one of the most skillful politicians Sacramento has seen in decades (he can also be one of the most clumsy politicians Sacramento has seen in decades, but during the health care reform debate his most artful political persona has been on display). Speaker Fabian Nunez and Speaker Pro Tem Don Perata are no political slouches either. Plus, they would like to see health care reform enacted to help justify the changes to term limits they are seeking on the February 2008 ballot.

Even the Labor coalition has incentives to reach a compromise. They are looking at putting a health care reform initiative on the ballot in 2008 (presumably it would look a lot like Assembly Bill 8, which the Legislature passed and the Governor vetoed). The Governor is threatening to sponsor a competing initiative of his own. Meanwhile business groups and advocates of a government-run single payer system are also considering initiatives. When multiple ballot measures on one topic are put before the voters, historically it’s been easier to defeat all of them than to get any one of them passed (although there are exceptions). So if Labor and their allies aren’t careful they could wind up with no health care reform passing at all and starting over from square one in 2009. That would be squandering not only two years, but all the momentum behind the current reform efforts. And it would be bad news for all those who effective reform could help much sooner if a responsible compromise could be reached.

I was talking to someone today (who prefers to remain anonymous) who pointed out another dynamic in this situation that could make Labor’s position uncomfortable. The unions are supporting employer-centric reforms like AB 8. Governor Schwarzenegger supports an individual-centric approach. Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, Governor Bill Richardson are among the Democratic presidential candidates whose health care reform proposals mirror, to some degree, Governor Schwarzenegger’s approach. So all the rhetoric this coalition is aiming at Republican Governor Schwarzenegger may apply just as strongly to Democratic presidential candidate <fill in the blank> come 2008. And the unions will be strong supporters of that nominee. 

Politics is politics. Attacking an opponent while praising an ally who has the same position is not uncommon. For all but professional contortionists, however, it’s not a lot of fun either. But that will be then and this is now. For now, positions are hardening and the hope for meaningful health care reform any time soon is growing faint.

Clinton Unveils Her Health Plan

That was then. This is now.

Then was when, as first lady, Hillary Clinton led the charge for health care reform. Her proposal was so unwieldy,  politically naive and arrogantly promoted that it helped Republicans take over control of Congress for the first time in over 40 years and set back the cause of health care reform by over a decade.

Now is when, as presidential candidate, Senator Hillary Clinton needs to put that history behind her and talk to the future. Which is what she did in Iowa today, unveiling the 2007 version of her health care reform plan.

Her approach this time is to be less original, less ambitious and less arrogant. Instead her new plan shares much in common with several other proposals making the rounds — including those of her rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination. This isn’t a bad thing; quite the contrary. It not only lends her plan credibility, but it provides political cover when it comes under attack.

So, for example, she shares with Governor Bill Richardson the concept that if people are satisfied with their existing coverage, they can keep it. She borrows from both Governor Richardson and Senator Barack Obama the idea of using refundable tax credits to help lower income Americans pay for their coverage. And, like Governor Richardson and former-Senator John Edwards she incorporates the idea of a requirement that all Americans obtain health care coverage and expanding MediCare eligibility.

Like many health care reform proposals — at least Democratic reform proposals — Senator Clinton would require insurers to accept all applicants without regard to their risk profile. As previously noted, she wisely balances this with a requirement that all Americans obtain coverage. What’s unclear is how she would enforce this requirement. Poor compliance by consumers would lead to the burden Senator Clinton’s state of New York bears: average insurance premiums roughly 350 percent higher than those in California.

Senator Clinton makes a major point out of avoiding the creation of new bureaucracies (another approach she shares with Governor Richardson). However, there’s something a bit disingenuous about this claim. True, instead of creating a new government health care program she would open up the Federal Employee Health Benefit Program to all Americans. However, the expansion required of the FEHBP to manage such growth would be the actuarial equivalent of creating a new bureaucracy. But with the added downside of probably disrupting the agency’s current mission.

As with all the health care reform plans put forward by presidential candidates, Senator Clinton’s proposal is more a window into her thinking than a blue print for reform. The new president will need to work with Congress to fashion a detailed reform structure. There will be plenty of debate and shaping of ideas in that process. The outcome may resemble what’s being described today, but then again, it may not.

Yet this glimpse into the approach of Senator Clinton is illuminating. By avoiding a single payer approach she demonstrates her willingness to take on the most liberal elements of her party. By imposing requirements on both corporations and individual she invites attacks from conservatives concerning a heavy-handed government approach to health care. In short, given the context of the health care reform debate as it exists today, Senator Clinton’s package is somewhere in the middle (ok, maybe a bit left of the middle, but close enough for government work). This positioning might be expected in the general election, but its a risky move in the primaries. However, it also demonstrates that Senator Clinton learned something then and she’s applying those lessons now.

Bill Richardson’s Health Care Reform Proposal: More Insured, Less Bureacracy

Bill Richardson is what’s called a second tier presidential candidate. He’s got a strong resume (Cabinet Secreatry, Congressman, Govenor), but has neither registered well in polls nor over-impressed with fundraising — yet. This makes his candidacy no less credible than others, it just means he has a steeper hill to climb.

Earlier this month, Governor Richardson unveiled his health care reform plan (Bill Richardson Health Care Reform Plan). As is proclaimed on his web site, Richardson believes “we need to make health care more affordable for all Americans, including those who are already covered. And any real solution to making health care more affordable for everybody must start with the commitment that all Americans should have health care coverage.”

Any of the Democratic candidates would be comfortable framing the goal of health care reform this way. What makes Governor Richardson’s position unique is how he goes about achieving trying to achieve this goal.

He wants to preserve consumer choice, so he proposes giving Americans to buy the same plan as do members of Congress, reducing the age for Medicare eligibility to 55, stronger Medicaid, Children Health Plans (like California’s Helathy Children program), and Veteran programs. Or, they could simply keep their current coverage. Few candidates have captured the simplicity of this latter provision. If consumers are happy with what they have, they can keep it.

The Richardson plan requires all Americans to purchase coverage and all carriers to accept all applicants. Yet, unlike most advocates of such arrangements, he does not call for the creation of a government-run pool, connector or exchange. This alone distinquishes his plan from those of other candidates. The Richardson health care reform plan subsidizes the cost of care through a sliding-scale tax credit and requires employers to contribute to health insurance.

The Richardson health care reform plan is less detailed than others, hopefully more specifics will be forthcoming. However, as a framework for change, it adds several worthwhile ideas into the Democratic campaign mix, including a vision for achieving universal coverage without creating government-run purchasing pools. The Richardson plan is certainly worthy of consideration and debate. Whether ideas from the second tier will get heard above the din of presidential primaries and sound bite debates remains to be seen.