Three years ago, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts enacted a far-reaching health reform law that politicians and the media hailed as a model for other states and the federal government. That law has become the blueprint for health system change on a national scale, and its advocates have aggressively marketed some variation of the Massachusetts plan as the reform of choice. There has been remarkably little analysis of how the law has worked. This is the ninth in an occasional series of posts that will explore the Massachusetts law with an eye toward helping the press and the public understand the flashpoints as legislation based on the Bay State’s experiment winds its way through Congress. The entire series is archived here.

Early this fall, Robert Blendon and his colleagues at the Harvard School of Public Health, along with The Boston Globe, published one of those polls his gang has regularly been conducting since Massachusetts passed its health reform law in 2006. This year they found that, among those residents who had heard at least a little about the law, 59 percent voiced support while 28 percent opposed it; the rest didn’t know how they felt or refused to answer. A year ago, however, 69 percent supported the law and only 22 percent opposed it. In 2007, the numbers stood at 67 percent in favor and 16 percent opposed.

Support, it seems, as measured by the pollsters, is dropping. Blendon acknowledged the ten percentage point drop in support and blamed it on the state’s budget crisis. “There’s been a series of reports that health care is too expensive, the sales tax has increased, there are cutbacks in jobs and in schools. This has made people nervous,” he explained. “Health care is expensive here and costs are not controlled. If they can’t find a way to make it less costly, it will be an issue in next year’s gubernatorial election.”

This time, though, Blendon et al did not ask a more telling question—one he and his colleagues had asked residents last year. Then, in a poll done in conjunction with the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation, they asked whether those affected by the law—that is, residents who were uninsured at some point, had gotten insurance, or changed their coverage—supported the individual mandate: the requirement that almost everyone must have insurance. Only 37 percent of those people said they supported the law, while 56 percent opposed it. In other words, those who had to buy a policy weren’t so happy.

Why not the same question, I asked? This year’s survey was done on a shoestring, Blendon said. His shop and the Globe paid for the poll. “I would loved to have had that question in the survey,” Blendon told me. The Foundation wasn’t interested in the topic, he said. It had already funded a different study examining what doctors
thought of the law. Surveying more people would have required a larger sample, which would have boosted the $20,000 cost to $40,000 or $50,000.

To take the peoples’ pulse another way, last week I interviewed men and women on the street in downtown Boston. Did they have insurance? What did they think of reform? How were they being affected by the law? Though not a scientific sampling, the survey offers some clues. Two things stood out: how little people knew about the law or even cared to know, and how many had insurance from their employers. Even before reform, Massachusetts had one of the highest rates of employer-provided coverage, and a large number of employers are still offering it. Were these insured folks ones that pollsters found supported the law? Was that all the more reason to know the answer to the question Blendon didn’t ask this year? What did people affected by the mandate really think?

Richard Darling is a homeless vet with no place to go. Darling said he lost his wife and his house when Katrina hit the coast of Mississippi four years ago. After the hurricane, he continued to work building warships down there, but then a year or so ago he got laid off. After losing a construction job a couple months later, he came back to New England to look for work. Darling, a fifty-five-year-old master electrician, says he has never been out of work before.

Trudy Lieberman is a fellow at the Center for Advancing Health and 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. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.