President Barack Obama's signature health care law is drawing tepid support in the Tampa Bay region, a new poll shows, with a majority of residents saying they basically like it or are at least willing to let it play out.
But the Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9 and AM 820 News poll also found that 35 percent of residents in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties would like to repeal the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare. Support among the rest was marginal.
While 48 percent of residents surveyed said they supported the law, most thought it needed improvements. Another 13 percent said they didn't like it but didn't want it repealed because they have not seen a better idea proposed.
The poll was conducted earlier this month, weeks before the first private insurance policies issued under the Affordable Care Act take effect Wednesday.
Pinellas residents were slightly more enthusiastic about the health care changes than those in Hillsborough. Women mustered more support than men.
"I support it with reservations, because I don't really know a whole lot about it," said Lacey Mastorides, 60, of Clearwater, explaining that she hasn't needed to research all the details because she has employer-based insurance, like most Americans.
A longtime nurse, she welcomes expanded access to health care. She has seen how people lacking health insurance often end up in hospitals with costly emergencies that could have been avoided with routine medical care.
She was among 625 Tampa Bay residents surveyed by phone Dec. 12-17. The poll, which had a margin of error of 3.9 percentage points, revealed that local residents are somewhat more optimistic than the rest of the country about the health care law.
In most recent national polls, a majority of Americans have signaled they are opposed to or disagree with the law, three months after the problem-riddled launch of the government website designed to allow consumers to shop for health insurance.
But given that no one has actually used an Obamacare policy, that negativity may have more to do with politics than policy.
"Most people at this point say they don't have any personal experience with it, so their views are often reflecting what they are hearing their party leaders say about the law," said Liz Hamel, a polling expert at the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, a not-for-profit health policy organization.
She said people's views have consistently been divided along party lines, with national polls showing that Republicans oppose it more strongly than Democrats support it.
Just ask Barbara Schickedanz, a 64-year-old Sun City Center Republican who considers the law "a joke."
She saw no need to reinvent a system that served her well through multiple health problems. Schickedanz is a cancer patient and an amputee. She also requires dialysis three times a week for end-stage renal disease.
She qualifies for Medicare, the government-run insurance program that serves seniors and the disabled. It covers her dialysis and the expensive chemotherapy sessions that she receives every two weeks at Moffitt Cancer Center.
To fill in the gaps where Medicare leaves off, she relies on private insurance obtained through her husband's job.
"The current system has worked for us," she said.
As divided as people are about Obamacare, the Times poll found they are even more polarized about the best way for Americans to obtain health care.
Few were happy with the health insurance system as it existed before the new law, the poll showed, with only 20 percent of respondents wishing to return to the status quo. Already, new features such as allowing adult children to remain on their parents' policies until age 26 have taken effect. Another big selling point of the new law is that it forbids insurers from barring people with pre-existing conditions, a major problem in the pre-Obamacare world.
Critics have derided the Affordable Care Act as an undue government expansion, though it actually increases business for the private insurance industry. But according to the Times poll, a sizable number of local residents think the government should play a bigger role in health insurance. Twenty-seven percent of those polled would like to see a single-payer health care program run by the government, like the systems that exist in Canada and France.
Another 18 percent would extend Medicare, also a government program, to Americans of all ages regardless of disability status.
To Jim Wamboldt, that's the option that makes the most sense. He thinks the new health law was a political gift to insurance companies. He would prefer to repeal the law and replace it with an expanded Medicare program.
"It's a big boondoggle. It's just a big mess," said the 78-year-old St. Petersburg resident, who relies on Medicare, supplemented by private insurance. "I think everybody should have insurance, but they went about it the wrong way."
Letitia Stein can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8330.