Actually Quite Popular

| Thu Jun. 30, 2005 8:01 PM EDT

Here's an interesting poll item—and it's not that Zogby poll that shows Bush continuing to flop after his middling speech the other night. No, this is something else. The conventional wisdom on health care is that, while Medicare—the government-run health program for senior citizens—is wildly popular, Medicaid—the means-tested program for some low-income workers and children—was not. But that's false: a new Kaiser poll found that 74 percent of Americans think Medicaid is a "very important" government program, and another 74 percent either "strongly" or "somewhat" oppose Medicaid cuts. In fact, it's nearly as popular as the infamous "third rails" of politics, Medicare and Social Security.

One would guess that most people were just getting Medicaid confused with Medicare—indeed, this was the clever reason why Democrats decided to name these programs the way they did—but no, it seems that most of the respondents actually knew what they were talking about, at least on a basic level. So that's good news. Of course, Republicans in Congress don't quite see things the same way; the recently-passed budget takes $10 billion out of the program over the next four years.

One could argue that Medicaid ought to be expanded at any rate—as MIT economist Jonathan Gruber has shown, it's the most cost-effective way to cover those who are currently uninsured, short of a drastic health care overhaul. (Moreover, researchers have found that Medicaid's costs aren't rising any more rapidly than health care costs in general.) More to the point, many of the program's eligibility rules are so complex that poor families are often deterred from joining—or else aren't even aware that they're eligible. It doesn't even cover everyone it actually should be covering; fathers of families, for instance, may not be eligible whereas the kids or pregnant wife will be. And thanks to the wild income swings experienced by many Americans these days, families keep bobbing over and under the income threshold to qualify for the program, thus leading to erratic coverage. (Or the threshold line creates all sorts of weird incentives for people to sell off or hide their assets to qualify, as several news outlets have recently reported.) The ideal solutions to these problems would be some sort of national health insurance, but failing that, Medicaid is a perfectly sound program, and it's encouraging that most Americans realize that.

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