Richmond Times Dispatch Cites Misleading Poll On Medicaid Expansion


The Richmond Times Dispatch cited a misleading poll that showed waning support for Medicaid expansion in Virginia and failed to explain the questionable phrasing used by the pollster.

The Times Dispatch editorial relied on an April 24 poll conducted by Christopher Newport University (CNU) that found that 53 percent of Virginians oppose the expansion of Medicaid currently being considered by the General Assembly. While the editorial board claimed to "share [the] concerns" of the poll's critics, they still used the poll's results to validate the Republican strategy of obstructing Medicaid expansion. The Times Dispatch continued:

We suspect the poll reflects the GOP's success in tying Medicaid expansion to Obamacare. The consequences of the botched debut of the Affordable Care Act continue to resonate. Backers of the plan may complain about unfair reactions, but a political fact is a political fact. Obamacare put Medicaid on Virginia's agenda, yet Medicaid's predicaments would exist even if Obamacare had gone down in congressional defeat.

The poll's results quickly came under scrutiny, mostly due to the way in which the polling questions on expansion differed markedly from the university's previous questions on the topic. As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities explained, previous polls about Medicaid expansion conducted by the university asked about expansion in a more neutral fashion, leading their February poll to find support for expansion. This time, the question highlighted each party's argument, reinforcing the Republican's "straw man argument that the federal government will renege on its commitment to fund nearly all the costs of the expansion":

What the pollsters do not fully acknowledge, however, is that they asked the question in two markedly different ways, making this a highly misleading, apples-to-oranges finding that doesn't necessarily show a shift in public opinion:

  • § On February 3 the question was asked: 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?
  • § But on April 24 poll the question was asked: In [the Medicaid expansion] 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 before it is expanded.

Thus, unlike in February, Virginians in the most recent poll were asked whether the state should expand Medicaid only after they were read the straw man argument that the federal government will renege on its commitment to fund nearly all the costs of the expansion. As we have explained, the history of Medicaid's financing shows that federal funding has remained remarkably steady for decades.

As Slate's Dave Weigel explained in a post on the poll, the questions were indeed very different, therefore "polariz[ing] the numbers in a manner not seen in February." Weigel continued, saying:

But the question's only being asked because the anti-expansion forces dug in. It's exactly like what happened with the state-based exchanges. Once an aspect of the ACA becomes partisan--once Republicans in a state are told that they can bring down the law if they hold their spears just so--it stops being popular enough to pass.

In addition, the latest CNU poll results show a large swing in public opinion, as past polling -- including CNU's previous, more neutral poll -- show strong bipartisan support for Medicaid expansion. Furthermore, the 2013 governor's race, where expansion was a major campaign issue, was seen as a demonstration of the public opinion as voters elected pro-expansion candidate Terry McAuliffe (D).

Ultimately, highlighting polling results that allows misleading conservative spin to continue to gain traction serves as a distraction from the facts of Medicaid expansion and fails readers of the Times Dispatch.

Posted In
Health Care, Health Care Reform
Richmond Times-Dispatch
State Media
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