Seniors More Inclined to Accept Increases in Medicare

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Amid widespread concerns about the future of Medicare, senior citizens have emerged as the age group most flexible toward paying more for the health care program, notably higher premiums for the more affluent, according to the Los Angeles Times Poll.

Nearly six in 10, or 59%, of those respondents 65 or older would support such a policy as a way to keep Medicare financially sound into the next century, while 32% said they opposed it, the survey found. Overall, respondents opposed the notion of hiking premiums by 51% to 44%, with the opposition even stronger among those ages 18 to 44.

"I think people who are over 65 and use a lot of health care recognize that it's valuable to them, and they're willing to pay more for it," said Marilyn Moon, a health care scholar at the Urban Institute in Washington.

At the same time, some found the reluctance of younger people to consider higher premiums for the affluent a disappointing sign: "It's discouraging that they wouldn't think it's a good idea, because they're the ones that are going to take it on the chin," said Gail Wilensky, who heads a panel that is advising Congress on how to deal with the thorny question of funding Medicare when the baby boom generation reaches retirement age in the early 21st century.

The national survey of 1,258 adults was conducted Sept. 6-9 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points. The sampling error for smaller groups was higher. Among respondents 65 and older, for example, it was plus or minus six percentage points.

Overall, the poll depicted a public that is unusually positive toward the national economy, with college graduates and those earning more than $60,000 annually the most upbeat. They credit the U.S. system of free enterprise--rather than President Clinton or other officials--for the economic expansion that has entered its seventh year.

On a specific economic issue, the poll found that respondents remain deeply wary of increased imports, even as Clinton has launched a bid to expand free trade.

Asked about the financially beleaguered Medicare program, respondents of different generations had different perspectives.

For example, those between 30 and 64 were more likely than those younger or older to describe the program's financial condition as weak.

A substantial majority of all age groups opposed the idea of hiking the age of eligibility for Medicare benefits from 65 to 67, a move that would parallel a change scheduled for the Social Security program between 2003 and 2027. Overall, almost seven in 10--68%--opposed such a change for Medicare with fewer than three in 10--27%--supporting it.

"To the intelligentsia, it sounds pretty good," Moon said, but average working people recognize the downside of having to work later in life to qualify for health care benefits.

On the economy, respondents offered a range of views, with deep schisms apparent on the question of trade.

Respondents were divided on the benefits of the North American Free Trade Agreement, with 39% saying they believe that it has been beneficial and an equal number saying the opposite.

Easterners were the most upbeat on NAFTA, with 47% saying it has been good; in the West, just 37% expressed that view about the trade accord among the United States, Mexico and Canada.

At the same time, a larger share of respondents--67%--would restrict imports to protect U.S. jobs. Income was a key factor on this issue: Of those earning less that $20,000 annually, 75% favored restrictions, while 53% of those earning more than $60,000 a year shared that view.

"Americans are in conflict with themselves," said Republican pollster Frank Luntz. "They want the cheapest products and they want the greatest variety. But they don't want to lose American jobs in the process."

To the Clinton administration, increased trade has been a key to the economic recovery that began in March 1991. And the poll's findings on imports come as the president prepares to pressure Congress for approval to expedite trade-treaty negotiations with other nations--the so-called fast-track authority. More than three in five of those surveyed predict that today's prosperity will last for five years or less; only one in seven said they believe that it will endure 10 more years.

When asked whom they credit for the strong national economy, a solid majority--62%--pointed to America's system of free enterprise. Just 19% said Clinton was responsible, and a mere 8% credited the Federal Reserve, which sets the nation's interest-rate policies and oversees the money supply.

These findings may reflect a widespread sense that events inside Washington are far removed from the nitty gritty of people's everyday lives. Consider: 65% said the recent deal between the White House and Congress to balance the federal budget by 2002 would benefit the nation--but only 39% said they believe that it will help them personally.

"It's almost like the country is better despite Washington, instead of because of Washington," Luntz said.

The poll found that there was a different view of personal financial security between blacks and whites.

For example, 66% of respondents overall described their personal finances as secure, 33% as shaky. But just 44% of blacks said their finances were secure, with 54% saying they were shaky. Among whites, 67% characterized their household finances as secure, with 32% saying shaky.

Similar patterns held for income groups, with those earning less than $20,000 annually the least upbeat. "They think the economy is doing well in general, but when it comes to their own personal finances, they are shaky," said Susan Pinkus, director of The Times Poll.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

THE TIMES POLL: Views on NAFTA/Medicare

Although Americans are inclined to think free international trade has helped the country's economy, they overwhelmingly believe the U.S. should have restrictions on imports. A majority rate Medicare as weak.

Has NAFTA been good or bad for the U.S.?

Good: 39%

Bad: 39%

Mixed: 7%

Don't know: 15%

*

Should the U.S. restrict imports to protect American industries and jobs, or should there be no restrictions so that American consumers can have the widest choice and the lowest prices?

Restrict imports: 67%

No restrictions: 24%

Don't know: 9%

*

Has free international trade helped the economy, or hurt it or hasn't it made any difference?

Helped: 39%

Hurt: 30%

No difference: 18%

Don't know: 13%

*

How would you rate the overall financial health of the Medicare system?

Strong: 20%

Weak: 56%

Haven't heard enough/Don't know: 24%

*

To keep Medicare solvent, do you favor or oppose making high-income seniors pay higher Medicare premiums?

Favor strongly: 25%

Favor somewhat: 19%

Oppose somewhat: 18%

Oppose strongly: 33%

Don't know: 5%

*

To keep Medicare solvent, do you favor or oppose raising the age of eligibility of Medicare from 65 to 67?

Favor strongly: 13%

Favor somewhat: 14%

Oppose somewhat: 17%

Oppose strongly: 51%

Don't know: 5%

****

HOW THE POLL WAS CONDUCTED

The Times Poll contacted 1,258 adults nationwide by telephone Sept. 6-9. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the nation. Random-digit dialing techniques were used so that listed and non-listed numbers could be contacted. The sample was weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age, education and region. The margin of sampling error for all adults is plus or minus 3 percentage points; for certain subgroups the error margin may be somewhat higher. Poll results can also be affected by other factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented.

Times poll data are also available on the World Wide Web: http://www.latimes.com/HOME/NEWS/POLLS/

Sources: L.A. Times Poll

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