TUESDAY, Jan. 11, 2005 (HealthDayNews) -- Almost two-thirds of Americans say that lowering the costs of health care and health insurance should be a top priority for President Bush and Congress in 2005, a new post-election survey finds.

Although malpractice reform and the importation of prescription drugs from Canada have been hot political topics in recent months, both were viewed as less pressing priorities by the survey respondents, despite the fact that a significant majority favored the idea of both.

The issue of health care tied with "terrorism/national security" as No. 3 on the public's list of most pressing problems, just behind the war in Iraq and the economy, according to the results reported Tuesday by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health.

Many Americans did feel that passing malpractice reforms could help reduce the cost of health care, saying it would help "a lot" or "some" if laws were passed limiting the amount of money patients can receive for pain and suffering and prohibiting individuals from filing lawsuits unless a medical specialist reviews the claim.

But reducing jury awards in malpractice lawsuits ranked 11th overall among the public's top 12 priorities for federal lawmakers this year, trailed only by increasing federal funding for stem cell research.

Bush, who blames runaway jury awards for driving up the cost of health care, recently renewed his call to make malpractice reform a top priority in his second term. The message seems to resonate with the public -- but only to a certain degree.

"When they hear President Bush talking about fixing the malpractice system as a way to lowering costs, that sort of rings true to them," said Mollyann Brodie, vice president and director of public opinion and media research at the Kaiser Family Foundation. "That's not to say they would make it their top priority."

In addition, 73 percent of those polled favored changing the law to allow Americans to buy prescription drugs imported from Canada, but the issue was ranked eighth in priority.

The survey is based on a nationally representative sample of 1,396 adults polled by telephone last November. The findings were released at a Washington briefing for reporters and policymakers.

Health care and "terrorism/national security" were each dubbed the most important issue facing lawmakers by 10 percent of respondents, sharply trailing the war in Iraq (27 percent) and the economy (17 percent).

Although the survey covered many health topics, concern over cost stood out as a defining issue. Sixty-three percent of those surveyed cited it as a top health priority for the President and Congress. Majorities also agreed that lawmakers should focus on making Medicare more financially sound (58 percent) and increasing the number of Americans with insurance (57 percent).

The most important cause of rising health-care costs? Twenty-nine percent of Americans blamed high profits made by drug and insurance companies, 22 percent said it was the high number of malpractice lawsuits in this country, and 15 percent pointed to the amount of greed and waste that occurs in the health-care system. Only 7 percent faulted what economists say is a major culprit behind escalating health-care costs: the use of expensive, high-tech medical equipment and drugs.

"It's hard for people to see that it's their own desires and expectations that are driving some of these costs," Brodie said.

When employers in the late 1980s began instituting measures to contain health-care spending, consumers mounted an angry rebellion, Brodie noted, and once those restraints were eased or lifted, health-care spending became to climb once again.

"We as a public aren't necessarily willing to give up a lot -- or to sacrifice a lot -- in order to get health-care costs to come down," Brodie continued.

That same sentiment came into play on the question of expanding coverage for the uninsured, the survey showed. While the public placed a relatively high priority on increasing the ranks of insured Americans, there was little agreement on the best approach for doing so. And consumers were split on whether they were willing to pay more in taxes or health-care premiums to help cover the uninsured.

"They're afraid it's going to hurt them and their family," Brodie explained.

But Kathleen Stoll, director of health policy at Families USA, said that a critical piece of the equation is often overlooked in the debate over how to finance coverage of the uninsured.

Studies show that covering all of the uninsured in a state can reduce premiums for the insured population by 10 percent to 15 percent, she said.

"The truth is that investment will be savings for all of us," regardless of how the expansion is financed, she added.

In other findings from the poll, 80 percent favored changing the law to allow the federal government to use its buying power to negotiate with drug companies for lower prescription drug prices for Medicare beneficiaries.

And 32 percent said the most important reason for rising health-care costs was too many lawyers filing unwarranted lawsuits; 9 percent said the main reason was too many juries making larger-than-justified awards.

More information

Survey results are available online at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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