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Health Care Remains Low Priority for Americans, but High Costs and Access Still a Concern, Study Says

By Libby George, CQ Staff

October 17, 2006 -- The Medicare drug benefit may win the lion's share of media attention, but it's not at the top of the list for most Americans, a new survey shows.

While health is considered a "second-tier issue" for Americans—coming in behind Iraq, the economy, and gas prices—the survey, published online Tuesday in the journal Health Affairs, found that 43 percent of Americans surveyed named high costs as one of the two most important health care issues for government to address, while 34 percent flagged the lack of insurance and access.

For the survey, the report's authors looked at two Harvard and Robert Wood Johnson–sponsored polls taken between March and April of 2006 as well as an analysis of the results of 19 national opinion surveys conducted between 1940 and 2006. Released less than a month before the midterm elections, the authors believe the report's results "are likely to create a climate that is supportive of increased health spending and substantial policy changes."

The survey also found that, as a fourth-place issue, health issues are a lower priority for Americans than they were in the early 1990s. But author Robert Blendon said that does not downplay the survey's overall significance.

"Health care has consistently ranked in the top few issues for government to address, and politicians ignore it at their peril," said Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health.

The survey found that issues related to Medicare and the drug benefit finished a distant third—named by only 15 percent of respondents as one of the two most important health care issues. Low-quality care came in at 11 percent.

Importantly, the survey also found that people are generally satisfied with their own care providers, while dissatisfied with the nation's health care on the whole. This result, Blendon and his co-authors suggest, could stem from "broader public concerns about the insecurity of health insurance coverage, high prices, bureaucracy, waste, and disparities in access to care."

Interestingly, when asked to identify the two most important diseases for government to address, the public again diverged from recent media coverage and ranked obesity number five, tying with diabetes. The respondents ranked cancer, AIDS, avian flu, and heart disease as the top issues, in order.

But Blendon said that is something that could change over time "as obesity receives more attention from the media and health professionals."

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