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JUNE 5, 2011

Support for state health law rises

Residents split on coverage mandate

Support for the Massachusetts universal health care law has increased since 2009, according to a poll of the state’s residents — even as the law has become the subject of blistering attacks in national and presidential politics, and health care costs soar.

The poll by the Harvard School of Public Health and The Boston Globe found that 63 percent of Massachusetts residents support the 2006 health law, up 10 percentage points in the past two years. Just 21 percent said they were against the law.

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Yet opposition has grown to one of its central elements — the requirement that people who can afford insurance buy it or face a fine. A similar provision in the national health care overhaul passed last year has been the subject of a contentious legal fight.

Forty-four percent said they oppose the mandate in the Massachusetts law, compared with 35 percent who opposed it in a 2008 poll. Still, the mandate retains the support of a narrow 51 percent majority of residents.

Percolating throughout the findings is a growing anxiety about health care costs, which are higher in Massachusetts than in the nation as a whole.

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Residents are split on whether Mas sachusetts can afford to continue with the law as it stands, and 30 percent said the law is hurting the cost of their care, up from 22 percent in 2009. Yet when asked about the law’s role in boosting health costs in Massachusetts, 72 percent said rising costs were mainly because of factors other than the law.

The majority’s perception — which aligns with health policy specialists’ view that overall medical inflation is driving up costs in Massachusetts — may help explain the continued strong support for the law.

“I was quite surprised,’’ said poll co-director Robert J. Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health. “Nationally there are so many critics blaming costs on the Massachusetts law, I thought maybe residents would be picking up the rhetoric.’’

Blendon said support for the law may have increased along with the economy — it’s now about the same as it was before the recession — and because “it’s established. It’s running. It hasn’t caused problems for people.’’

Fewer than one in five said in the poll that the law is hurting their quality of care, their ability to pay medical bills if they get sick, or the time it takes to get an appointment with a physician.

The telephone poll of 537 Massachusetts adults, conducted from May 24 to 26 in English and Spanish, has a margin of error of 5.3 percentage points.

The findings have implications beyond Massachusetts, particularly for the presidential campaign of Republican Mitt Romney, an architect of the Massachusetts plan who signed it into law when he was governor.

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