Surveys on CareFirst plan are polls apart

Insurer, citizens' group pose conversion queries

March 05, 2002|By M. William Salganik | M. William Salganik,SUN STAFF

The results were polar opposites - or pollster opposites.

Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative released a survey yesterday showing that Marylanders oppose a plan by CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield to convert to a for-profit operation and sell itself. According to this poll, 56 percent of Marylanders want state officials to block the CareFirst deal, only 18 percent support the transaction and 26 percent said they didn't know.

By the end of the day, CareFirst released its own poll. It showed 18 percent in favor of the deal and 30 percent opposed, with 52 percent saying they were not sure. That poll also found that 84 percent of Marylanders want the insurance commissioner to conduct full hearings on CareFirst's plan to be acquired by WellPoint Health Networks Inc., while only 11 percent want the state legislature block it.

The two polls did agree on one key finding: Maryland residents are not very familiar with the issue. In each poll, about two-thirds of respondents said they hadn't heard much about it.

Pollsters for both sides said that the way questions were worded could account for the differences in key results.

The CareFirst poll, conducted by Potomac Inc. of Bethesda, asked 1,200 registered Maryland voters if they had heard of a proposed merger for CareFirst, then, "From what you know today, would you approve or disapprove of the proposed merger?" And then it asked, "No matter what your feelings are about this merger issue, does it deserve to be examined thoroughly by the insurance commissioner so all the facts can come out and people can make their own decisions, or should the state legislature pass a bill to stop the merger right now?"

The health initiative poll, conducted by The Mellman Group of Washington, asked 500 randomly dialed Marylanders who said they were likely to vote this year, "A California-based company is proposing to purchase Maryland's non-profit CareFirst BlueCross Blue- Shield health insurance company and convert it to a for-profit enterprise. Do you think Maryland's state insurance commissioner should approve or block the sale of BlueCross BlueShield and its conversion into a for-profit company?"

Steven R. Raabe, executive vice president of Potomac, conductor of CareFirst's poll, said mentioning California and nonprofit in that question could influence the result. He said his question "didn't use decision cues - it was straight-up approve or disapprove."

Mark Mellman, president of The Mellman Group, said his question "didn't offer any argument" but simply mentioned important facts that respondents needed to know - the conversion to for-profit status and the sale to a California insurer.

Asking a question without those facts, as the CareFirst poll did, was "designed to promote their position - and they still got people opposed," Mellman said.

He said the CareFirst question on whether to proceed with hearings or kill the deal now was "completely disingenuous" by setting up a false choice between "letting the facts come out vs. acting without any information."

Overall, Mellman said, both polls showed that Marylanders were opposed to the deal.

Not so, countered Raabe. He said both polls showed that, "The people are very open to listening to the arguments on both sides."

Vincent DeMarco, executive director of Citizens' Health Initiative, said his news conference - with statements from groups representing seniors, labor and clergy - showed the broad opposition to the CareFirst conversion and sale.

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