From Rachel Martin and Sunlen Miller: After a weekend of relatively tame town halls President Obama found one vocal skeptic in a college student who challenged the President to an Oxford debate over the public option at his Grand Junction, Colo., town hall this evening.
Zach Lahn, a 23-year-old student at the University of Colorado got the President’s attention after shouting out during the Q and A a few times. The President finally called on him during the end of the town hall.
“I just want proof here that I'm happy to get a good debate going,” the President said, knowing that he could be wading into harsher waters than he is used to.
“I'd love to have a debate, just all out, anytime, Oxford-style, if you'd like,” Lahn said to President Obama and then proceeded on with his question. “How in the world can a private corporation providing insurance compete with an entity that does not have to worry about making a profit, does not have to pay local property taxes — they do not have to — they're not subject to local regulations? How can a company compete with that?”
Lahn said he didn’t want any generalities, or philosophical arguments from the President as a response.
Obama praised his young challenger and said this is a legitimate debate to have.
“It's good to see a young person who's very engaged and confident challenging the President to a Oxford-style debate, I think this is good," he said. "You know, this is good. You know, I like that. You got to have a little chutzpah, you know.”
And then he went on to address Lahn’s outspoken concern that private insurance companies wouldn’t be able to compete against a government program.
“Certainly they can't compete if the taxpayer is standing behind the public option just shoveling more and more money at it,” Obama said. “That's certainly not fair. And so I've already said I would not be in favor of a public option of that sort, because that would just mean more expenses out of our pockets and we wouldn't be seeing much improvement in quality.”
The President said he thinks a system can be crafted in which the public option is operating independently, and not subsidized by taxpayers — and he mentioned how nonprofits like BlueCross BlueShield go on the market and get a market price for capital.
“I think there are ways that we can address those competitive issues," he said. "And you're absolutely right, if they're not entirely addressed, then that raises a set of legitimate problems. But the only point I wanted to make was the notion that somehow just by having a public option you have the entire private marketplace destroyed is just not borne out by the facts.”
The President again gave the example of UPS and FedEx thriving more than the U.S. Post Office.
“The public option, whether we have it or we don't have it, is not the entirety of health care reform,” Obama said, “So we are working on a series of proposals to address the questions that you're raising. I believe that we can work them out. But those are specific questions as opposed to broad, philosophical questions about whether government ever has a role to play or not.”
Obama said he’d repeat for emphasis that nobody is talking about a government takeover of health care.
In an interview with ABC News after the town hall Lahn said he was not satisfied with the President’s response.
“I’m not trying to incite any uproar. I just want an answer. The American people deserve an answer," he said. "We have a Medicare/Medicaid, Social Security is bankrupting our country and we’re supposed to put more faith in the federal government? If you cant ride a bike don’t hop on the motorcycle, you know?”
Lahn said he got the same old talking points from the President.
“The truthful answer is there is no way a private company can — when businesses start writing off their employees to save money by putting off a public plan, how can insurance companies survive at all? They are just being demonized in this whole situation.”
Lahn, a Republican who has volunteered for campaigns and most recently Sen. John McCain’s presidential run, said that he’s still waiting for a real debate with Obama.
“Anytime that he would like to do a debate, I am open for a debate," he said. "I have facts on my side.”
-Rachel Martin and Sunlen Miller