With the health care debate taking center stage in the White House and on both sides of Congress, Democrats have stepped up their efforts to defend a government-sponsored health insurance program, saying the reforms they are proposing are greatly needed.
"What we know is that cost currently is crushing families and businesses," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told "Good Morning America" today. "Unless we do something, we won't be able to afford the health care we have, the health care we need."
The main point of contention between Democrats and Republicans is the idea of a "public option" -- a government-sponsored health insurance plan that would compete with private insurance.
Democrats say it will give people, especially those who are not able to afford insurance or cannot qualify for private care because of pre-existing conditions, another option. Republicans claim it will stifle the private health insurance industry.
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The Congressional Budget Office estimates that 23 million Americans would migrate from employer-based health care plans or other plans to a government public health care plan if one were offered. A study by health consulting firm the Lewin Group found that if a government-run plan paid at the same rate as Medicare, 70 percent of consumers currently with private insurers would jump ship for the public program.
"A government plan, no matter what you call it, will increase costs. It will reduce choices and essentially it will not allow you to keep what you have, and that is the essence of what the health care system in this country is about," said Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., echoing the sentiment of his fellow Republican congress members. "We ought to allow for more competition so that people can have choice."
A CBS/New York Times poll found that 72 percent of Americans support a public option, and 50 percent think government would do a better job providing medical coverage than private insurers do. Only 30 percent of those polled said they did not think providing health insurance for all Americans was the government's responsibility.
According to recent estimates, 59 percent of Americans get health insurance through an employer. But 45.7 million people in the United States, including 8 million children, have no health insurance at all.
Cost has also become a hot button issue -- namely, how will any new plan be funded?
Republicans have seized on a CBO report that estimates the plan proposed by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Senate Democrats will cost upward of $1 trillion over 10 years and still leave 36 million uninsured. Democrats on the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee say they are revising the plan to cut that high price tag, and other committees of the Senate are also working on different bills.
Former majority leaders of the Senate, Tom Daschle, Howard Baker and Bob Dole, who have offered their own bipartisan solution, say that at least half of the costs to pay for health care reform would have to come from new revenue and taxes. White House officials say that's not true.