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Public Option Tough Sell in N.M.

By Sean Olson
Copyright © 2009 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer

          While most members of New Mexico's congressional delegation support a government-run public option for health care coverage, nearly half of the state's registered voters don't want one, a Journal Poll found.
        Forty-nine percent of the voters surveyed statewide said they opposed a government-run insurance program that would compete with private industry.
        Forty-two percent said they favored a government-run program, or public option. Nine percent said it would depend or they didn't know.
        Intensity also was apparent. Respondents who "strongly opposed" a public option outnumbered those who "strongly favored" such a plan by more than 3-to-2.
        Brian Sanderoff, president of Research and Polling Inc., which conducted the Journal Poll, said results show New Mexico voters — like factions of Congress — are "extremely polarized" in the public-option debate.
        "It's just one of those issues where its hard to meet in the middle," Sanderoff said.
        Journal Poll findings on the public option question included:
        North central New Mexico was the only region of the state where a majority of voters said they supported a public option.
        A majority of voters on the east side and in the northwest said they opposed a government-run program to compete with private insurers.
        Voters in the Albuquerque metro area were split almost evenly.
        Younger people, ages 18-34, were slightly more likely than people over the age of 65 to support a public option.
        Voters who identified themselves as Hispanic were more likely to support a public option than Anglo voters. Fifty-three percent of Hispanics said they supported a government-run program, while 57 percent of Anglos opposed such a system.
        Voters identifying themselves as liberal and conservative were far apart on a government-run health care program: 75 percent of liberals and only 17 percent of conservatives said they favored such a plan. Forty-nine percent of the voters calling themselves moderate favored a public option and 40 percent opposed it.
        Voters were asked, "Do you favor or oppose creating a public health care plan run by the federal government that would compete directly with private health insurance companies?"
        The survey was conducted by telephone Sept. 8-10 with 402 registered voters interviewed in the scientific sample. The margin of error for results of the full sample is plus or minus 5 percentage points.
        Four of New Mexico's five congressional members, all of whom are Democrats, support a public option. The supporters are Sen. Jeff Bingaman, Sen. Tom Udall, Rep. Ben Ray Luján of the 3rd Congressional District and Rep. Martin Heinrich of the 1st Congressional District.
        Rep. Harry Teague of the 2nd Congressional District , D-N.M., has said that a public option is not necessary to overhaul the health care system.
        The public option issue has ignited heated debate across the country as people have swarmed to town hall meetings and inundated congressional members and newspaper editors with written comments. In Congress itself, a Republican House member shouted "You lie" Wednesday night during President Barack Obama's health care speech to a joint session.
        The Journal Poll began the day before the president's nationally televised address and ended the day after.
        Advocates of a public option plan say its competition with private insurance would be key to keeping health care costs in check. Critics say a government-run program would run private insurers out of business. Many critics also say it would cost too much, putting new burdens on consumers and the federal budget.
        All members of the New Mexico congressional delegation were asked about the Journal Poll results over the weekend. The polling data were not available until Saturday; Bingaman, Udall and Luján responded within the short notice.
        Bingaman said Sunday he still "strongly" supports a public option, "but it's unclear at this point whether it — or perhaps some other proposal — will end up in the bill.
        "As this bill takes clearer shape in the coming weeks and months, it's my hope that New Mexicans' support for it grows," Bingaman said.
        Udall said Saturday that a public option would help insure residents of a state that has one of the highest uninsured rates in the nation.
        "Including a strong public option would help keep insurance companies honest by making the system more competitive," Udall said.
        Mark Nicastre, Luján's spokesman, said the public option would increase competition and drive down costs.
        "There are obviously strong differing opinions in the health insurance reform debate, but in his conversations with his constituents Rep. Luján has heard strong support for reform that includes a public option," Nicastre said.
        Congress is still debating whether a government-run insurance program will be part of its final health care bill, which supporters hope will give health care coverage to the 47 million uninsured in America and drive down the cost of care.
        "The way the public is viewing this is similar to what's happening in Congress," Sanderoff said.
        Obama has said he favors a public option but there are indications he might accept privately run health insurance cooperatives. That's an option Bingaman has also said might be acceptable, and he is a key member of the Senate Finance Committee trying to reach a bipartisan agreement on a health care bill.

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