Jan. 11, 2004 -- As the new Congress begins and President George Bush prepares to start his second term next week, new polling data suggest that Washington's health care agenda for the coming year may be substantially out of step with the desires of American voters.
In figures released Tuesday, 63% of Americans say that taking direct action to lower the cost of health care and medical insurance should be a top priority of Congress and the president this year. This ranks just ahead of increasing federal funding for stem cell research.
Over half say that reducing the number of medical errors, cutting the number of uninsured, and making Medicare more financially sound should top the priority list, according to a poll of 1,400 adults released by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
The report comes only days after Bush completed a nationwide tour designed to promote his desire to limit jury awards in medical malpractice lawsuits against doctors, hospitals, drug companies, and others.
Meanwhile, supporters of legalizing the importation of lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada and Europe, most of them Democrats, are vowing to resurrect their efforts in spite of White House opposition.
Both parties promote these initiatives as key strategies to help lower health spending, which in 2003 hit $1.7 trillion and surpassed 15% of the gross domestic product for the first time in history, according to government figures released today.
But the actions being pushed by Washington's policy makers appear to be much lower priorities for patients and voters.
Just 31% in the Kaiser poll say allowing prescription imports from Canada should be a top priority in Washington this year, while even fewer, 26%, say reducing jury awards in malpractice lawsuits should be a top concern.
"In terms of their priorities, the things they want to address first, these rank lower," says Mollyann Brodie, PhD, a Kaiser vice president who helped conduct the poll along with the Harvard School of Public Health.
Other poll results may help explain why Republicans and Democrats, whose political fortunes live and die by accurately taking the public's pulse, have chosen to largely ignore voters' health care priorities.
When respondents were asked to choose which factors contribute the most to rising costs, soaring insurance and drug company profits, along with the number of malpractice lawsuits, topped the list.
The overuse of expensive technology, new drugs, and medical devices and the lack of financial incentives for patients to avoid using unnecessary health services -- factors cited by most health economists as leading cost drivers -- were at the bottom.
The difference, experts say, is that initiatives addressing lawsuits and importation require patients to give up little or nothing. Changing way the medical system uses expensive new technologies or limiting access to care would require sacrifice.