CJR Holds a Town Hall Meeting

And finds a cross-section of public opinion on health reform

The polls continue to say that roughly half of Americans don’t support health reform. A Zogby poll finds that about 51 percent of Americans oppose the Democratic version of health reform; a Quinnipiac University poll reports that 54 percent are unsupportive of Obama’s plan; a Public Policy Polling survey puts the number of those who oppose at 50 percent.

So what does a sample of New Yorkers in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan think of health care reform and what’s happened to it? Interviews over the weekend in our non-scientific poll show that people are about as split as the scientific polls show. Some have strong opinions; others have tuned out; and still others say they are unaffected by the all the back-and-forth between the Dems and the Republicans. A few people I interviewed didn’t know about the big health care pow-wow on Thursday, even though that topic has consumed stakeholders, interest groups, Internet listservs, and health care reporters for weeks.

“I am not aware of the summit,” said thirty-eight-year-old Liza, who was having her nails done. But then, she had not been very engaged with the debate in the first place. “Personally I don’t think I will be affected by it,” she said. Liza has insurance from her employer, but she declined to say where she works. “There’s nothing I’ve heard that makes me think I would be.” Hmmm, I thought. Apparently the messages from the president and the pols these many months had not filtered down to her.

Seth, who also wouldn’t give his last name, had the same reaction. Seth is twenty-seven and said he is the CEO of a software firm a few blocks away. He told me there were nineteen hours in the day when he wasn’t sleeping and he had to devote that time to things higher on his priority list—running his business, keeping up with technology, and spending time with his wife. “I don’t need to have an opinion on everything,” he said. He did admit that he knew very little about the reform debate. At one point, he said Obama was trying democratize health care more like in Canada or France. I wondered if he meant: make it more like socialized systems.

A few minutes later, Seth said that the president was trying to privatize health care, making it so that everyone gets it—but that that would make the costs go up “substantially” because what you pay has to cover more people. “I can only imagine how much,” he said, and then told me about the insurance coverage for his workers. The premiums his company pays are going up 30 percent March 1. We have the perfect demographic, he explained: Most employees are between 28 and 35 and aren’t supposed to get sick. Policy wonks say the young, healthy invincibles will keep everyone’s costs down. Still, Seth said, his workers have had health problems. One employee got cancer; others had babies. For every dollar his company paid in premiums, the insurance broker said $1.03 was paid out for medical expenses.

I stopped in at Flannery’s Bar to see if some of the patrons would chat. A few did. Leonardo Mojica works as a computer analyst at New York University and started our conversation by saying, “It’s not going to affect me. It might when I get to Medicare or Medicaid.” That won’t be for awhile, since he is just fifty-five. He has had insurance from NYU for twenty years.

Mojica knew about the issues. “It was a big mistake to take the public option out of the whole package,” he told me. He said he was an independent but usually votes for Dems. (“Republicans, never!”) Yet he was not happy with the Democrats. “Democrats are usually chicken,” he explained. He supported Obama, but he was not happy with the president’s health care leadership. “He wanted to placate Republicans too much. He’s supposed to fight. One of the biggest disappointments is how he has been kow-towing to the please the Republicans. They will never cooperate with him.” Mojica said that if they pass anything, it will be “watered down.” “I don’t see any gains.”

Phil McQuade was on his lunch break. He works for Verizon as a central office technician and has health coverage. The minute I bring up health reform, he says, “I don’t agree with it. There’s too much pork involved such as the Nebraska deal. I think he’s buying votes.” McQuade, who came from Ireland when he was three years old in 1959, said that the government shouldn’t be involved in health care “just like they shouldn’t be involved with cars.”

“There definitely should be no public option,” he told me. The government shouldn’t be selling insurance, McQuade thought, but it should do more to bring down insurance’s prices—like stopping the million dollar salaries of executives.

At first McQuade said he didn’t know how reform might affect him. Then he told me he thinks he might have to pay more. “We’re giving insurance to the wrong people,” he said. Which ones? I asked. “Like illegal aliens,” he replied. I explained that they would not be covered under the bills. “I don’t know that,” he said, adding that things are changing fast. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they put it back in.”

We talked some about trust, particularly trust in government. I asked McQuade whom he trusted. “Myself,” he said.

Kirsten Semenkewitz was showing hand creams to a customer who had just scrubbed her hands at the soap store where she works as a sales associate. Semenkewitz said she had been loosely following health care. “I don’t know the details, but I know what Obama is putting out is not universal health care whatsoever,” she told me. “He’s not putting it out to appease Republicans. He’s doing too much to appease the people who paid for his campaign. That’s not a good thing in my opinion.”

Sememkewitz, age twenty-three, is also a student at Hunter College. She said she is not sure she would vote for the president again. Has he disappointed you? I asked. “Absolutely. He’s a politician so I didn’t expect too much, but I did expect a little bit more. I thought he’d at least use some political muscle, but he hasn’t.” Semenkewitz said she did not really trust the president on health care or other issues she was concerned about like climate change. “Politicians and the president are trained to say ambiguous statements so they can’t be held accountable,” she added. Then Sememkewitz told me she was scared about the outcome of health reform and not being able to afford care.

Joanna, age fifty-two, manages a shoe and accessory store and had a few minutes to talk. She knows how hard it is to get her family covered. She told me that she paid about ten grand a year for health insurance. Her employer offers health insurance to full timers and contributes toward the premiums. But it doesn’t pay for family members, so Joanna pays for her husband’s coverage. She got her daughter on Child Health Plus, a New York state plan. Their income, she said, was low enough to qualify. Now she is looking for coverage for her son, who is back in college. It’s tough.

“I don’t think health reform would do anything for me because I’m insured,” she explained. “Medical insurance should be a percentage of your salary. You pay a certain amount that’s affordable. Joanna was not up on the arcane stuff about affordability buried in the bill, but her thinking was in sync with some of the bill drafters. She knew that under reform insurance companies would have to take everyone, but she also knew about the one-year waiting period for pre-existing conditions in New York, a state that also requires insurance companies to take everyone. “What are you supposed to do in the meantime?” she asked, and wondered if the federal bills would be like that. She also thought that her fifty-five-year-old husband could go on Medicare, and was surprised to learn he could not.

She admitted that she had lost interest in the health care debate after the Massachusetts election in January. We talked a bit about the president’s leadership on health care. “He hasn’t really said what he wants to do, and that’s the most frustrating part.” The president, she said, “is always caring too much about the Republicans. For me Obama was refreshing. I went for the whole idea of moving forward. I didn’t expect miracles, but it’s discouraging. It’s all about politics. Except health care really hits home for a lot of people.”

Our takeaway: The cost of care and insurance looms large as a concern even if people already have health coverage. The pols have inspired little confidence that that will change.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.