The health care debate, the uninformed electorate, and the media

THE HEALTH CARE DEBATE, THE UNINFORMED ELECTORATE, AND THE MEDIA…. The latest report from the Kaiser Family Foundation includes a startling detail about public opinion: Americans not only don’t know what’s in the Affordable Care Act, most of the public doesn’t know if the law still exists.

Respondents were asked, “As far as you know, which comes closest to describing the current status of the health reform law that was passed last year?” A narrow majority, 52%, said the law is still on the books, while 22% said the law has been repealed, and 26% weren’t sure either way.

I suppose one might be tempted to argue that these results aren’t that bad — after all, most Americans got it right. I’m afraid this sets expectations way too low. What kind of national debate can we have on health care policy if a combined 48% of the country thinks the law has been repealed or isn’t sure? This kind of detail is the bare minimum of public awareness. If barely half the country knows the law is still on the books, there’s no hope for a credible discussion of more complex issues like the individual mandate and medical loss ratio.

Drew Altman, president and CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation, wasn’t surprised by the data, but wasn’t encouraged by the results, either.

[P]eople are very busy just getting through the day and they don’t have a lot of time to sort through news reports about the policymaking process. They see the word “repeal” in the local paper or hear it on TV and think the law has been repealed. Second, there may be some partisan wishful thinking going on; 30 percent of Republicans think the law has been repealed while only 12 percent of Democrats do. But overall, it is obvious that the knowledge of basic civics is pretty low.

That’s a sentence that’s worth repeating: “It is obvious that the knowledge of basic civics is pretty low.”

This is important for a variety of reasons. We know, for example, that public opinion helps guide policy decisions, and if nearly half the country doesn’t even think the health reform law still exists, Congress may want to keep that in mind when reading health-care-related polls.

What’s more, these same folks who are “very busy just getting through the day” are charged with an awesome responsibility: choosing the right policymakers to shape the nation’s agenda and future. At a certain point, the public has to step up and get informed if they expect the system to work well for them.

Also, following up on Altman’s comments, Joan McCarter reminds us that it’s worth appreciating how much the media contributes to the confusion, which is the opposite of the intended role of news organizations.

When the House approved its symbolic repeal measure a few weeks ago — shortly before this survey was taken — the media gave it banner, all-caps headlines, leading news consumers to think it was important, rather than a partisan vanity exercise. Likewise, when court rulings uphold the law, the media (sometimes literally) ignores the developments, while trumpeting rulings that go the other way, again generating public confusion over the status of the law.

The Kaiser data reflects poorly on the public, but it should also bring some embarrassment to the industry responsible for keeping the public informed.