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In Massachusetts, Government polls find people like subsidies

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Opinion Zone,Ben Domenech

There are few things in government with the persistence and political acumen of a bureaucrat. The primary goal of every agency is not its task at hand, but its budget’s survival and expansion, no matter the cost. And in a time of increasing fiscal tension between government promises and our pocketbooks, it’s not difficult to imagine a future where bureaucrats use taxpayer money to hire their own public relations firms, image consultants, and professional pollsters to make the case for their ever-increasing budgets.

In the case of Massachusetts’ controversial health care bureaucracy, the future is now.

At the first Republican presidential debate held last week in South Carolina, Fox News reporter Shannon Bream asked former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty about his critical remarks directed toward the Massachusetts health care plan of former governor and likely opponent Mitt Romney. “A poll showed just weeks ago showed that 84 percent of Massachusetts’s residents are satisfied with the plan,” Bream asked. “Why isn’t that good enough for you?”

Pawlenty answered with a restrained critique, noting it was impolite to criticize Romney when he wasn’t there (for his part, Romney defended his law in a speech this week). But Bream’s citation of this poll without caveat was deceptive, and concerning.

The survey Bream cited was conducted by polling firm Market Decisions at the behest of the Massachusetts Health Care Connector, the government-run exchange created under Romney’s 2006 law. Besides not mentioning this clearly relevant fact, Bream got another key point wrong—the survey was not of Massachusetts residents, but of Commonwealth Care members, who receive their health care through the exchange funded by heavy subsidies from other taxpayers.

As a general rule, people tend to like things if they receive them nearly for free. It doesn't take a poll to learn that.

More importantly, the depiction of this poll as a legitimate measure of Massachusetts’ views on the program leaves out reams of competing data—including surveys not funded by taxpayer dollars.

For example, a recent poll conducted by Suffolk University and WHDH-TV asked whether Massachusetts’ health care laws were working: only 38 percent of voters said yes, while 49 percent said no.

That’s a sharp decline from 2008, when polls found approval of Romney’s reforms at 69 percent—more popular than President Barack Obama’s national law has ever been, incidentally. When the recent poll asked if Romney’s reforms will help or hurt his presidential campaign, only 22 percent said it would help Romney, while 54 percent said it would hurt.

It’s easy to see why the Bay State has soured on the program. Surveys by the Massachusetts Medical Society in recent weeks found patients are facing incredible wait times—in some cases more than a month—to see primary care physicians and specialists. The average wait time was 24 days to see a pediatrician and 48 days to see an internist, and 56 percent of surveyed physicians said they are not taking on any new patients. The cost picture is no better: A 2010 study published in the Forum for Health Economics & Policy found Massachusetts health insurance premium increases, which had slowed prior to Romney’s reforms, are increasing faster than the average for the rest of the country. The average employer-sponsored family health plan in Massachusetts now costs more than anywhere else in the United States.

None of this was mentioned in last week’s debate—just a survey of a taxpayer-subsidized population conducted at the behest of taxpayer-funded bureaucrats. We'll have to see if the federal government takes a cue from this, and starts releasing poll data of those subsidized through Obamacare to demonstrate its popularity.

“Government programs, once launched, never disappear,” Ronald Reagan warned us. “Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this Earth.” That statement, true when it was said nearly 50 years ago, will become all the more accurate if bureaucracies can use the taxpayer funding they already get to make the case for more, and if their poll-based propaganda is not exposed for what it is.

Benjamin Domenech (bdomenech@heartland.org) is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute and managing editor of Health Care News.

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