Americans split on socialized medicine

3 min read

During the course of the presidential nomination campaigns, some candidates’ health care plans have been described as “socialized medicine.” Historically, that phrase has been used to criticize health reform proposals in the United States.

However, a new poll by the Harvard Opinion Research Program at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and Harris Interactive finds that Americans are split on whether a socialized medical system would be better or worse than the current system.

Among those who say they have at least some understanding of the phrase (82 percent), a plurality (45 percent) says such a system would be better, while 39 percent say it would be worse. Twelve percent say they do not know and 4 percent say that it would be about the same.

The poll shows striking differences by party identification. Seventy percent of Republicans say that socialized medicine would be worse than our current system. The same percentage of Democrats (70 percent) say that a socialized medical system would be better than our current system. Independents are more evenly split, with 43 percent saying socialized medicine would be better and 38 percent worse.

“These results suggest how polarizing the issue of health care will be in the general election,” says Robert J. Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at HSPH. “The phrase ‘socialized medicine’ really resonates as a pejorative with Republicans. However, that so many Democrats believe that socialized medicine would be an improvement is an indication of their dissatisfaction with our current system. Independents, who are the key swing group in this election, are split like the country as a whole.”

Although a majority of Americans say they understand the phrase “socialized medicine” (34 percent very well, 33 percent somewhat well), about one in three are uncertain what it means (15 percent not very well, 15 percent not at all). When offered descriptions of what such a system could mean, only one-third (32 percent) believe that socialized medicine is a system where “the government tells doctors what to do.” Strong majorities believe that it means that “the government makes sure everyone has health insurance” (79 percent) and “the government pays most of the cost of health care” (73 percent).

A majority of those surveyed feel that the American health care system already has elements that could be described as socialized medicine. Sixty percent believe that Medicare is socialized medicine, whereas about half (47 percent) feel that the veterans’ health care system is.

A majority of Americans believe that the front-runners for the Democratic nomination would propose changes that would create a socialized medical system. However, there is a difference between the two remaining Democratic candidates. Sixty-nine percent of those polled think that Hillary Clinton would propose a socialized medical system, compared with 57 percent for Barack Obama. Far fewer Americans feel the Republicans would propose a socialized medical system — Mike Huckabee (19 percent) and John McCain (15 percent).

Compared to seniors (ages 65+), younger adults (ages 18-34) are more likely to view socialized medicine positively (55 percent vs. 30 percent). Younger adults are also more likely than seniors to view Medicare as socialized medicine (67 percent vs. 47 percent).

The uninsured do not view socialized medicine as negatively as those who have health insurance. Only 19 percent of the uninsured think that a system of socialized medicine would be worse than our current system, while 57 percent think it would be better. Those who currently have health insurance are divided on whether socialized medicine would be better (44 percent) or worse (41 percent).