Cost, availability of insurance and drugs top health care worries

August 14, 2002

BETHESDA, MD.-The public believes that health insurance and prescription drugs cost too much, but those issues are overshadowed by a lagging economy and terrorist threats, according to new polling data compiled by Harvard researcher Robert Blendon and colleagues from the Harvard School of Public Health.

Published today on the Health Affairs Web site, Blendon's article argues that "health care issues may play even less of a role" in the 2002 congressional election than they did in the presidential election in 2000. Americans believe that terrorism, homeland defense, and the economy are more important issues for the government to address than health care, Blendon and colleagues write.

In an accompanying essay, Drew Altman and Mollyann Brodie of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation argue that while public opinion polling is a useful tool for policymakers, its usefulness is limited when the public is divided or doesn't understand the issues.

Blendon's article tracks public opinion on health care issues before and after the events of 11 September 2001 and analyzes changes in Americans' priorities on health care issues over time.

According to Harris Interactive polls taken a month before the events of September 11, health care was third after education and the economy/jobs on Americans' priority list of issues. At that time, 14 percent of Americans said that health care was one of the two most important issues for government to address, compared with 18 percent for education and 15 percent for economy/jobs.

In a July 2002 Harris poll, just 9 percent of Americans said that health care was one of the two most important issues for government to address, compared with 37 percent for terrorism, 37 percent for the economy/jobs, and 13 percent for war/defense.

Data from a survey that Blendon conducted with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reveal, however, that dissatisfaction with the availability and affordability of health care has risen again after receding in the months following September 11. Sixty percent of the people surveyed in May/June 2002 were "not too satisfied" or "not at all satisfied" with the availability and affordability of health care, close to the 63 percent his poll found in April/May 2001 and up from 48 percent in November/December 2001.

The cost of health care remains Americans' top health care concern, as it was before and immediately after September 11, according to Blendon's survey. Eighteen percent named health care costs as one of the two or three most important health care problems in the May/June 2002 survey, ahead of inadequate health insurance coverage (16 percent) and cost of drugs (9 percent). All of those numbers have shrunk from May/July 2001, when 35 percent named health care costs, 23 percent named inadequate health insurance coverage, and 15 percent named drug costs.

But Americans aren't necessarily looking to government to reduce health care costs, the survey reveals. When the May/June 2002 survey asked people to name one of the two most important health care issues for government to address, 12 percent cited health care costs, behind issues affecting the elderly or Medicare (23 percent), inadequate health insurance coverage (22 percent), and drug costs (14 percent).

Health care costs are a rising concern, however. In Blendon's November/ December 2001 survey, just 6 percent named health care costs as one of the two most important health care issues.

Health Affairs

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