National Partisan Debate Elbows in on California

by David Gorn

A Field Poll on attitudes toward health care reform in California had some interesting results -- including a much more positive feeling about reform among Californians than is found in national polls.

One of the main results this year and last, according to Field pollster Mark DiCamillo, is that opinions on health care are highly partisan.

"The data were very partisan last year, and the reality of the data is, we haven't had that much of a change since then. The amount of knowledge people have about reform is not greater than last year, but there's so much heat on this issue, so much of a partisan divide -- it's here, it has been here and I don’t expect it to go away anytime soon."

That partisan element has not only influenced opinions, he said, but has reinforced factual misconceptions, as well. "The dissonance that's going on is just amazing to me," DiCamillo said. "The predispositions people have about health care are coloring what's going on in reality."

For instance, he said, 36% of Californians believe that undocumented residents will be better off from the health care reform law, despite the fact that the law specifically excludes undocumented residents from participating.

"We actually see the highest degree of confusion among people who say they have more knowledge [about health care reform issues]," DiCamillo said. "That's consistent with Tea Party voters and Republicans," he said, "and they're also more likely to believe that illegal immigrants will benefit. So that self-reported knowledge, you have to take it with a grain of salt."

DiCamillo, California Health and Human Services Secretary Diana Dooley and others spoke about the poll Monday during a public forum in Sacramento sponsored by the Center for Health Improvement and California Wellness Foundation.

Dooley, who took over as health secretary in December, said she found herself smack in the middle of that partisan fight from day one.

"It's real, and it's intractable," Dooley said. "And it's been very frustrating so far, in these past three months, to be stuck in our own partisan fight over the state budget."

She said many Republicans across the state support the governor's mix of cuts and tax extensions to balance the budget, and she believes a number of Republican legislators share that feeling, as well. Dooley worries that the fact that no Republican lawmakers have shown that support does not augur well for future cooperation on health care reform.

"The discouragement from the [poll] numbers, to me, is that people think they know so much," Dooley said. "Of all of the issues of the data, this sense of 'I already know enough' is particularly troubling, and trying to break through that is one of the greatest challenges I think we face."

Dooley pointed out that the notion of the exchange, for one, is a concept that Republicans should be able to get behind.

"The exchange is a historically Republican idea," Dooley said. "It's using the market mechanism to connect consumers with products. So in this case, their ideology is trumping their own knowledge about what works."

The recent cutting of $6 billion worth of health-related programs in California (about half of the cuts imposed last month) also makes it harder to explain the pending expansion of health care coverage, Dooley said, especially in such a skeptical, politically charged atmosphere.

"It's this cognitive dissonance," Dooley said. "Voters will be wondering how we can be going forward and backward at the same time. And it's harder to explain that it's actually federal money [for the expansion]."

The good news, Dooley said, is that a strong majority of Californians polled believe that health care reform will work, that it will be implemented properly and that Californians feel they will be better off than they were before reform.

"I'm delighted that the people of California think we're up to the task," she said. "I do think we're poised to make California deserve its reputation as an innovator."

That task will be increasingly tough if the political climate continues to warm, DiCamillo said.

"Nationally, about a quarter of the public does not believe the law is in effect anymore," DiCamillo said. "I am leery of the political dimension tied up in all of this. I'm a little skeptical [it could improve], and a little hopeful."


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