Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Public Option Pressure To Stay On Reid

Although Senate Finance Committee is set today to approve a healthcare reform bill without a public option, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will find himself under pressure across Capitol Hill to include such a provision in the days and weeks to come.

The Finance Committee will approve a healthcare reform bill without a public option after its members defeated two attempts to include government-run healthcare in its reform plan. However, it will be up to Reid to put forward a single Senate bill that takes into consideration both the Finance legislation, and separate healthcare reform legislation approved this summer by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. The HELP Committee bill includes a public option that would compete with private insurers.

President Obama has long supported inclusion of a public option, most recently in his address to Congress last month. Some 30 Democratic senators, led by Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, have written Reid to make sure that the final health care reform bill includes a public health insurance option.

"We are concerned that - - absent a competitive and continuous public insurance option - - health reform legislation will not produce nationwide access and ongoing cost containment," the senators write. "For that reason, we are asking for your leadership on ensuring that the merged health reform bill contains a public insurance option."

Senators who signed the letter include those from the progressive end of the Senate Democratic caucus, including public option sponsor Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, as well as more moderate members, such as Sens. Robert Casey and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

“Minnesotans I’ve talked to around the state want to see real health care reform,” says Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, one of those who signed the letter. “They know that the status quo is unsustainable, and they want security, stability, and affordability in the plans they’re choosing for themselves and their families. Minnesotans are telling me to fight for a public health insurance option because they know it’s the clearest way to keep down costs and hold insurance companies accountable.”

Republicans have railed against the public option as a "government takeover" of healthcare, and Finance Committee Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has said support doesn't exist in the Senate to pass such a provision.

Brown and the others who have signed the letter to Reid dispute that notion.

"... [A] strong public option has resounding support among Senate Democrats – every Democrat on HELP, three quarters of those on Finance, and what we believe is a majority of the caucus," the letter says.

The letter also responds to specific criticisms of the public option raised by opponents, particularly that it would drive private insurance companies out of business.

"Opponents of health reform argue that a public option presents unfair competition to the private insurance companies. However, it is possible to create a public health insurance option that is modeled after private insurance – rates are negotiated and providers are not required to participate in the plan," the letter says. "As you know, this is the Senate HELP Committee’s approach. The major differences between the public option and for-profit plans are that the public plan would report to taxpayers, not to shareholders, and the public plan would be available continuously in all parts of the country. The number one goal of health reform must be to look out for the best interests of the American people – patients and taxpayers alike – not the profit margins of insurance companies."

Further, even after Reid shapes a single Senate reform bill, he will face House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as lawmakers from the House and Senate work in a conference committee to develop a single, final bill for Obama to sign. Pelosi has strongly backed inclusion of a public option, even as senators have wavered.

Pelosi will prove formidable in working to pass a public option in any final legislation, according to former House Aging Committee and Health subcommittee chief of staff Robert Weiner.

Weiner co-authored a recent op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle titled, "Pelosi Power: Public Option Still Viable."

"For those who doubt Pelosi's ability to pass the bill, know that she has passed every bill she has brought forward, usually with 60-plus margins, since the Democrats recaptured the House in 2006," Weiner writes in his piece.

The piece concludes, "A true reading of her performance should brand her as the Lyndon Johnson of the House. Just as Johnson did when he served as the Senate's majority leader, Pelosi works from the inside to ensure efficient passage of bills.

"Health care - and the public option - will probably be no different."