Humphrey School News—April 26, 2016

New Humphrey School Research Shows Americans Like Effects of Health Care Reform, but They’re Still Divided by Politics

 Six years after the national Affordable Healthcare Act (ACA) was passed, and despite the fact that it has provided some 20 million more people with health insurance, Americans are still divided over the law that’s come to be known as Obamacare.

But new research from Professor Larry Jacobs of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs indicates attitudes toward the benefits of the ACA are becoming more positive over time. Jacobs and a colleague from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, recently released the results of their latest study in the journal Health Affairs

Two findings are particularly striking, according to Jacobs. First, Americans have become more impressed and more appreciative of the tangible benefits of health care reform in these specific areas:

  • Subsidies to help pay for insurance
  • Aid to seniors to better afford prescription drugs
  • Extension of coverage for children until age 26 on their parents’ insurance policies.

 Specifically, there's been a 19 percentage-point increase in people who say the law is increasing access to medical care and insurance. “That is a huge change,” said Jacobs.

 Even among individuals who had unfavorable views of the law from the start—most of them Republicans—the percentage who support an outright repeal of the law has declined by nine percentage points, to 72 percent, from 2010 to 2014.

Second, even though more people have come to appreciate the benefits of health care reform, that has not translated into more positive feelings about Obamacare itself. The study shows the public remains split over the ACA—45.6 percent of respondents had an unfavorable view of the law, while 36.2 percent favored it.

Jacobs calls that an “odd combination of feelings,” attributing it to the toxic political environment which has seen Republican leaders continue pushing to repeal the law. “In short, political distrust, partisanship, and ingrained attitudes toward the ACA—not features of the law itself—are driving the public’s negative opinion of reform,” he said.

Jacobs’ approach to studying public opinion provides a unique understanding of the Affordable Care Act. Unlike other one-time polls, Jacobs and his co-author, Suzanne Mettler of Cornell University, are surveying the same respondents over time to measure how their opinions have changed.  

About 1,200 people from across the country were in the original pool when Jacobs first began the study in 2010. They were contacted again in 2012 and 2014; 55 percent have responded throughout, and 66 percent participated in 2010 and 2014. 

 “As health reform was making its way through Congress, we could see that the seminal question would be, is America buying into it?” he said.

Jacobs calls his use of this panel survey design “the gold standard” for tracking change in public opinion, and it’s a more useful tool for determining how Americans are responding to health reform as it has been implemented. Jacobs said the fourth round of the survey will take place in October, just a few weeks before Election Day.

 “There’s probably going to be a continuation of this pattern,” Jacobs predicted. “A substantial number of people may well continue to have unfavorable views because of partisanship, but a growing number of Americans may also become more accepting and appreciative of the tangible benefits of health care reform.”

Jacobs is the Walter F. and Joan Mondale Chair in Political Studies and director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance in the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs.  

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