By Jason Szep
BOSTON, Feb 14 (Reuters) - Most Democrats say "socialized medicine" would be better than the current U.S. health care system, while most Republicans say it would be worse, a poll by the Harvard School of Public Health showed on Thursday.
Highlighting philosophic divisions over a top issue in this year’s U.S. presidential election, the poll showed most Americans expect the Democratic front-runners to pursue changes that would create a socialized medical system.
The survey did not provide a definition of that term and one in three voters said they did not understand it. But more than 70 percent said they understood it to mean "the government makes sure everyone has health insurance".
Nationwide, about 45 percent of respondents said they believed such a system would be better for the country, while 39 percent said it would be worse, according to the poll of 1,030 voters surveyed Feb 6-10.
Both parties talk of reining in costs and expanding coverage to the nation’s 47 million uninsured residents, but they are deeply divided about how to do it.
About 70 percent of Republicans said socialized medicine would be worse than the current system, while the same percentage of Democrats said it would be better.
Among independent voters, 43 percent say they believe socialized medicine would be better and 38 percent worse. The poll, conducted by Harris Interactive for Harvard, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
"These results suggest how polarizing the issue of health care will be in the general election," said Robert Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Republican candidates and policy strategists often accuse Democrats of advocating "socialized medicine", depicting such plans as entangled in bureaucracy and synonymous with a so-called single-payer government health care system.
The expression was used frequently by former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to attack Democrat Hillary Clinton’s plan for universal health insurance.
During his campaign which ended earlier this month, Romney accused Democrats of pursuing "European-style socialized medicine", deriding it as "a government mandate" and inspired by "European bureaucracies." Those lines went down well with conservative audiences.
In the pol, about 60 percent said the Medicare insurance program for seniors was a form of socialized medicine, and about 47 percent said the veterans health care system was socialized medicine.
Democrats say Republicans use the phrase as a scare tactic while mischaracterizing their plans, which call for expanding government-run health care and boosting Medicaid for the poor.
Republican plans typically focus on stimulating competition among insurance companies. The probable Republican nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, has proposed tax changes to make health care more accessible.
Democratic candidate Barack Obama says Republicans make the mistake of calling all Democratic plans "socialized."
"Those old categories don’t work, and they’re preventing us from solving the problems that the American people want us to solve," he said on Monday.
(Editing by Alan Elsner)