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OCT. 21, 2011

Poll says most want state action to cut cost of health care

More than three-quarters of Massachusetts residents see health care costs as a serious problem, and they want state government to do something about it, according to a new poll commissioned by the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation.

Among 1,002 Massachusetts residents randomly selected and interviewed by phone last month, 78 percent said the high cost of care has reached the level of being a major problem, or even a crisis. Eighty-eight percent said it is important for the state to address this issue in an aggressive way - an assessment shared by a majority of Democrats, Republicans, and independents.

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“People want action,’’ said foundation President Sarah Iselin. “The public is looking for results.’’

The survey did not ask those polled what kind of government action is necessary. But the bipartisan support for action, at a time when the nation is divided over government’s role in changing health care, surprised Robert J. Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard School of Public Health, which conducted the poll. Blendon was the lead researcher on the report.

“I just took for granted that all the Republicans would be against this and half the independents who tend to lean Republican would be against this,’’ Blendon said. “When people think, in the state, about the health care laws that will happen in the future, they are less polarized than they are when they talk about the national legislation.’’

The poll is reminiscent of one Blendon led in 2003, early in the debate over expanding insurance coverage. At the time, respondents said reducing the number of uninsured should be government’s top priority.

Governor Mitt Romney signed a law in 2006 creating an independent state agency to vet and sell health plans, providing new subsidies for coverage, and requiring most state residents to have health insurance.

Today, about 98 percent are covered, and policymakers have turned their attention to costs.

Governor Deval Patrick proposed legislation in February aimed at changing how doctors and hospitals are paid, moving from a system that pays for every service provided to one that pays for patients’ overall care.

There has been little public action on the bill since a series of hearings held this spring.

Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, executive director of the consumer group Health Care for All, said the Blue Cross poll shows that the public is eager for the next phase.

“Given the priorities reflected here, I think the decision makers should feel confident in making the next step and that we need to move quickly to address what Health Care for All sees every day, which is that people are struggling to pay for their health care,’’ she said.

Among them is Chuck Green of Ashland, 57, who went shopping for health care in 2009 after his wife left her job as a teacher to give private art lessons. After their first insurance provider increased their monthly premium by more than half, the couple signed on with Blue Cross Blue Shield, paying $1,292 per month, he said.

In April of this year, their premium jumped to $1,589. With a $1,000 deductible each, their annual health care costs total more than $21,000 - more than their mortgage and property tax combined, said Green, who recently started his own video production business. He said he is hopeful that action by the state government could improve the situation.

“If anywhere, Massachusetts has the promise of again providing leadership to the country and making the appropriate changes to the health care system,’’ Green said.

He may be more optimistic than most. Fewer than half of respondents to the Blue Cross poll said they were at least somewhat confident state action would reduce costs. Still, 32 percent said government must lead the effort, compared with 27 percent who picked insurance companies to lead, and 19 percent who picked hospitals and doctors.

Asked about the top drivers of health care costs, those polled named drug companies, insurers, and hospitals that charge too much, along with waste and fraud and people who overuse the system. Low on the list were factors that reflect individual decision-making, such as overuse of expensive technology or higher-cost hospitals.

“A lot of experts are worried about how many prescriptions people take, and the public is worried about the cost per pill,’’ Blendon said.

The results of the poll will be presented today at an 8 a.m. forum hosted by the foundation at the Boston Harbor Hotel.

Chelsea Conaboy can be reached at cconaboy@boston.com. Follow her on Twitter @cconaboy.
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