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April 25, 2014

CNU’s Misdiagnosis of Health Reform Opinions

The pollsters at Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Public Policy made a fundamental error in their new survey about closing the health care coverage gap that makes their conclusion invalid – and certainly no excuse to abandon the effort to insure nearly 400,000 Virginians.

The Center should know better. If you want to find out whether public opinion on this important topic has changed from February to April you have to ask the same question each time. That’s textbook Polling 101. But they didn’t do that in a recent poll of Virginians’ attitudes on expanding Medicaid.

And that calls into very serious question the accuracy of their purported finding that public support for expanding health coverage has dramatically declined in little more than two months.

In February, CNU pollsters posed their query this way:

“Medicaid is a health care program for families and individuals with low income that is funded by both federal and state tax dollars. Currently, Virginia is faced with a decision about whether to expand the Medicaid program to cover an additional 400,000 mostly working poor Virginians who are uninsured. In general, do you support Medicaid expansion or oppose it?”

In response, 56 percent said they favored it, 38 percent said they opposed it. 

Then in April, CNU pollsters asked a different question, with partisan, political overtones:

“In th[e] debate, the Democrats propose to subsidize private insurance for 400,000 uninsured and low income Virginians by using federal Medicaid money that would otherwise not come to Virginia. Republicans oppose this expansion because they fear the federal Medicaid money will not come as promised, and also say the current Medicaid program has too much waste and abuse and needs reformed [sic] before it is expanded.” They were then asked if they suppose or oppose “using federal Medicaid money to expand health coverage.”

In response, 41 percent were in favor and 53 percent were opposed.

It’s not hard to see the difference in the questions. In essence those polled in April were asked to respond to a political party’s position, as outlined for them by the CNU pollsters. This stands in direct contrast to the February poll where politics wasn’t part of the question, and it showed. In that poll, support for Medicaid expansion was almost identical between Republicans and Democrats.

Not surprisingly, the news media gave the latest poll results wide coverage, giving the impression of slipping support for Medicaid expansion even though the poll itself provided no support for that conclusion.

The bottom line is that comparing these two results can’t be used to measure whether public opinion has shifted. To do that you have to ask the same question twice.

CNU should know better. As a public institution, it owes Virginians a more straightforward approach. And Virginia policymakers shouldn’t let such a shoddy piece of polling work affect their views on the most important question facing the commonwealth today.

–Massey Whorley, Senior Policy Analyst

The Commonwealth Institute

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