A monthly survey of consumer sentiment on health care issues shows that Americans' confidence in insurance coverage, affordability and access dropped more than 5 points in July, after having risen slightly in June.
Among seniors eligible for Medicare the drop was even more striking - 10.4 points - suggesting the health care debate is raising alarm bells for older people. The survey was conducted even before coverage of raucous town hall meetings that highlighted public opposition to Mr. Obama's Democrats' health overhaul plans.
The United States is the only developed country without a universal health care program. Mr. Obama has made passing such a plan the centerpiece of his first year in office. about 50 million of the country's 300 million people lack health insurance.
The health care consumer confidence index is compiled by the nonpartisan Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a philanthropic organization that supports health care reform. It uses people's responses to a series of questions - whether they worry about being unable to afford prescription drugs or being driven to bankruptcy by medical bills, for instance - to determine an overall confidence score.
The overall score for July was 97.2, down from 102.3 in June. The highest possible score is 200, the lowest zero.
"Americans continue to struggle to afford health care, and I think they're still feeling pinched by the downturn of the economy, and there's also all the debate in Washington," said Lynn Blewett, director of a University of Minnesota state health data center, which analyzes the data for the foundation.
"I think people don't understand what's going on, and so I think there's a little more concern about what's going to happen to the health care system in the future," Blewett said.
The Robert Wood Johnson survey does not measure specifically whether people support or oppose Mr. Obama's health care agenda. Recent surveys have shown approval of Mr. Obama's handling of the issue slipping, with 45 percent of registered voters in a Marist Poll released Friday saying they disapprove of how the president is handling health care, while 43 percent approved.
The Robert Wood Johnson survey, however, shows palpable worries about the status quo. It bears out other polls, including Marist, that show the public believes the U.S. health system should be changed, even while they have misgivings about the direction Mr. Obama and his Democrats are taking.
In the Johnson poll, 52 percent of respondents said they were very or somewhat worried that they would not be able to afford future care, and nearly 30 percent said they were very or somewhat worried they would go bankrupt from medical bills. Lower-income people expressed greater disquiet.
There also was a certain amount of satisfaction expressed. Asked to rate the quality of health care they received, 26.1 percent said it was excellent, 34.5 percent said very good, 25.7 percent said good, 10.4 percent said fair and just 3.4 percent said poor.
The telephone poll of 500 people had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.