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Republicans Are Less Critical of Obamacare When Considering Their Own Medical Needs

A study suggests setting aside our political personas allows us to judge Obamacare more objectively.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

As Congressional Republicans heatedly debatethebestway to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, they all maintain at least one point: that they are following the wishes of the people who elected them. Republican voters, they insist, widely consider Obamacare a failure, and are demanding something different.

Recently published research suggests that assumption is true — but only if citizens are thinking in political/ideological terms. When the issue is framed in a more personal way, Republicans view the law in a more favorable light.

“We know that Democrats are more in favor of the Affordable Care Act than Republicans,” said Oliver James of the University of Exeter, who co-authored the study with Gregg Van Ryzin of Rutgers University. He reports that, when members of the GOP were primed to think in political terms, impartial evidence of the law’s effectiveness did not alter their opinions on the subject.

However, their minds “did change when they thought about the facts in the context of their own health.”

The study, published in the January issue of the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, describes research conducted in January of 2015. For the study, 661 Americans were recruited online as part of the CivicPanel project.

After an initial screening, participants were randomly assigned to a “political prime” or a “health care needs prime.” Those in the first group indicated their political ideology and answered a series of questions on their view of the proper role of government.

Those in the second group answered a series of questions about their personal concerns regarding access to and affordability of health care. They indicated how concerned they felt about such topics as “not being able to afford needed prescription drugs, being locked in a job for fear of losing health benefits, and the general fear of losing health insurance coverage.”

Participants then performed one of two tasks designed to indicate their feelings about the ACA. Half of them were presented with four statements about Obamacare’s effectiveness, two of them positive (rates of child vaccination went up in all 50 states) and two negative (the number of adults who went without health care improved in only nine states).

They were asked to rate each statement on a zero-to-10 scale. A zero indicated it provided “very weak evidence” of the law’s effectiveness or ineffectiveness, while a 10 suggested it offered “very strong evidence.” The other participants completed a similar questionnaire using state-level data and bar graphs.

The key result: “The political prime widened the gap between Republicans’ and Democrats’ judgments of the strength of evidence favorable to the ACA, with Republicans rating it as less strong,” the researchers report.

In other words, Republicans were “relatively unwilling to view favorable evidence about the ACA as having much probative value” — but only if they were thinking in political terms. They were significantly more open to accepting such evidence if they were thinking about health care in personal terms.

The results suggest health care would benefit by being “taken out of the realm of partisan conflict.” The researchers suggest a bipartisan commission that comes up with reform ideas could have considerable support.

But the fundamental issue is the lens we happen to be looking through when the subject arises.

Republicans who are in a political frame of mind are tempted to reflexively dismiss claims of ACA success as overhyped, according to this study. But those same Americans can see the act’s pros and cons more clearly and objectively when they assume the role of parent, patient, or caretaker.