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Health Care Crisis? Read the Polls

Here we go again.

"Medical horror stories - are they a sign of a health care system in crisis?" This question from ABC's Forrest Sawyer opened the June 18 broadcast of "Nightline," and his response was predictable: "You remember all that talk of health care reform a few years ago. It died away with little accomplished and with it went most public attention to the issue. So in case you haven't noticed, since then things have only gotten worse."

People will remember 1993 as the year that socialized health care came to the fore on the American political scene. But that's not altogether accurate. The health care "crisis" as an issue, and nationalized health care as the policy prescription to solve this "problem" was created and fed by a leftist press for years; the Hillary-care political debate was but the final scene in that act. And now Act II is underway, with the liberal media again setting the stage for the Democrats.

Correspondent Wyatt Andrews, on the June 24 "CBS Evening News" said that just-announced GOP health policies were "aimed at calming the public's anger at [private sector] managed care." According to Andrews, "The party that bashes [managed care] best just may control the next Congress." ABC's Linda Douglass, on the June 19 "World News Tonight," told of a man whose HMO refused to cover his brain tumor operation, and NBC's Joe Johns, on the June 24 "Today," reported on a breast cancer patient who had to battle her HMO to see a specialist. A June 23 "NBC Nightly News" story by correspondent Bob Faw ran quotes from Public Citizen's Dr. Sidney Wolfe, who said HMOs are "not to be trusted," and from a private citizen who lashed out at the profit motive in general: "When you make a profit, you are doing so at the expense of the beneficiary; therefore, I do not trust the private sector."

Boy, Americans must really be mad! Except that polls suggest otherwise. In a story for IntellectualCapital.com, pollster Everett Carl Ladd notes that while polls "show continuing concern about health care, centering on the huge costs involved," the percentage of Americans who say health care is "the most important problem facing this country today" has dropped down into the single digits, compared to 20 percent to 30 percent between 1993 and 1995. According to Ladd, "What is more telling is that huge majorities say they are satisfied with the health care they receive - including their ability to get a doctor's appointment and the most sophisticated medical treatment."

In Ladd's poll, fully 88 percent of respondents in HMO plans said they were satisfied with the quality of care they receive, with 79 percent saying they were satisfied with the cost of such care. (Only 65 percent of respondents in traditional fee-for-service plans said they were satisfied with costs.) An August/September 1997 Princeton Survey Research Associates (PSRA) poll found that only 19 percent of respondents thought the federal government should regulate HMOs, with a plurality instead favoring oversight by an independent non-profit organization. A December PSRA poll asked Americans to grade their health insurance. Thirty percent gave it an "A" and 42 percent a "B," while only 19 percent gave it a "C" and six percent a "D" or "F."

Ladd quotes the American Enterprise Institute's Karlyn Bowman, who studies trends in public opinion on health care: "Although Americans favor many reforms in the abstract, they are considerably less enthusiastic about changes that would raise the cost of their health insurance premiums, get the government more involved in the area, or cause employers to cut back on coverage."

But none of this led Forrest Sawyer, for instance, to open the aforementioned "Nightline" broadcast by saying: "Tonight we're going to look at some horror stories in HMOs, but these are exceptions. Most Americans are satisfied with managed care." Neither did it lead CBS correspondent Andrews to suggest that "public anger" at managed care may be overstated. And it didn't lead NBC's Faw to run quotes from people on the street with kind words for managed care (rather than just from HMO representatives themselves) to balance the quotes he ran from the pro-regulatory minority.

American health care in general, and managed care in particular, are clearly not perfect. For one thing, the federal government, by making health care tax-deductible only if bought through an employer, encourages HMOs to compete more on the basis of cost than quality. (An argument, by the way, which you have never, ever heard from a network news reporter.) But no matter what you hear on the evening news, there is no national health care crisis. And that's something else you'll never, ever hear from them.