“Obamacare” turns out to be clarifying, not derogatory, vocabulary for health care reform

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It is hard to avoid using the term “Obamacare” when writing frequently about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act because it is an easy, less wonky shorthand — but also a shorthand that I have assumed to be derogatory, implying opposition to the health care overhaul.

Not so, according to a poll just released by the Kaiser Family Foundation, who found that when labeling the health law “Obamacare” support spikes dramatically among Democrats, drops slightly among Republicans, and has almost no effect on the expressed support of Independents.

Overall, support for the law jumps from 35 percent to 42 percent when the term “Obamacare” is used instead of the plain old “health reform law.” But this seven percentage point increase is due almost entirely to the response from Democrats, who move from an approval rating of 58 percent for “health reform law” to 73 percent for “Obamacare.” 

Among Republicans, 76 percent disapprove of “the health reform law” and 86 percent disapprove of “Obamacare”; while among Independents, there is little change. Regardless of what vocabulary is used, 33 percent of nonpartisans approve of the law; yet disapproval is higher among those responding to “Obamacare” (52% compared to 43% for “health reform law”).

What the KFF release doesn’t get into, though, is that it seems much of the action comes from people who “didn’t know” or who refused to answer how they felt about the “health reform law.”  It seems that calling it “Obamacare” cleared up confusion about which law was in question, leading people to express their existing views more confidently.

For example, among Democrats, 25 percent didn’t know or didn’t answer the question when asked about the “health reform law” while only 10 percent refused for “Obamacare” — a drop of 15 percentage points.  Likewise, among Independents, 24 percent didn’t answer when asked about “health reform” while only 14 percent didn’t answer for “Obamacare”. 

According to KFF, unfavorable views of Obamacare (there, I said it) continue to outpace positive views — dropping to a nearly all-time low in June, second lowest to its ratings in October 2011.  However, at least some of this disapproval — about 8 percent — comes from Americans who don’t feel the law goes far enough.  Overall, 40 percent of respondents to the June survey felt the country as a whole would be worse off under Obamacare, up from 35 percent in November 2012.

Karen Cyphers, PhD, is a public policy consultant, researcher, and mother to three daughters.