Health Care Debate: Will Public Option Die?

A cornerstone of the Obama plan suddenly becomes "not the essential element."

August 16, 2009, 5:27 PM

Aug. 16, 2009— -- While President Obama spent the day visiting the Grand Canyon with his family and taking a break from the health care battle, back in Washington the debate raged on.

The big question: is the president's plan for a government-run health insurance option dead?

The Obama administration further signaled today that it might be willing to negotiate on the so-called public option provision

First, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said that a government alternative to private health insurance is "not the essential element" of the administration's health care overhaul.

"I think what's important is choice and competition and I'm convinced at the end of the day the plan will have both of those, but that is not the essential element," Sebelius said on CNN's "State of the Union."

Then Sen. Kent Conrad, a moderate Democrat from North Dakota, appeared on "Fox News Sunday" saying: "Look, the fact of the matter is there are not the votes in the United States Senate for the public option. There never has been. So, to continue to chase that rabbit, I think, is just a wasted effort."

So Conrad has come up with an alternative: public cooperatives. These non-profit groups, run similarly to rural electric co-ops would be given several billion dollars of government money to get started and would -- in theory -- compete with insurance companies to offer better and cheaper medical coverage.

Ditching the public option requirement might anger more liberal members of Obama's party, but it might allow him to sway enough Republicans to make his health care overhaul a reality.

But would Republicans go along with public coops?

Public Health Cooperatives

Sen. Richard Shelby, a conservative Republican from Alabama said on Fox: "It would be … I believe a step in the right direction, away from a government takeover of our health care in this country."

While Obama critics have loudly protested the possibility of what they say would be government-run health care, they have been just as loud in opposing his plan to pay for counseling on end-of-life care measures.

The president has fought back, telling a public form in Grand Junction, Colo., on Saturday: "What you can't do -- or you can but shouldn't do -- is start saying things like we want to set up death panels to pull the plug on Grandma."

But Sunday on ABC's "This Week" Sebelius signaled surrender when quizzed by Jake Tapper: "It's been turned into this scare tactic and probably will be off the table."

Why is the administration waving white flags on things dear to the hearts of liberal Democrats? Because those liberals alone cannot pass a health-care bill.

"At the end of the day the final bill is going to rise or fall on Kent Conrad and some moderates," political analyst Stu Rothenberg said.

Rothenberg predicted that there will be increased complaining from liberals as the health-care debate moves closer to the endgame. He said Obama will eventually have to tell liberals that, although neither they nor he can get all they want, they should accept that it is better to get some health-care reform than none at all.

Debate or Fear Mongering?

But for now, it seems like fear is the dominating the debate.

Sen. John Barrasso, a Republican from Wyoming, said on CNN that people in his home state are "afraid that with this new plan that the president is proposing is they're gonna end up paying more and ending up with worse care overall."

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, went further saying on "This Week" that he thinks that Democratic lawmakers intend to force individuals out of their current insurance plans and into a government-sponsored network where they cannot choose their own doctor.

"Everything the Democrats are doing is pushing towards what is called a single payer system where the government basically controls everything," Hatch said. "Don't think for a minute that that will not destroy the current insurance system."

But while the Obama team was changing its stance, Tom Daschle, the former leader of Senate Democrats, said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that opponents of health care reform are deliberately misleading people.

"It's hyperbolic. It's fear mongering. It's actually politics at its worst," Daschle said. "It's the kind of thing that generates the kind of anger and fear and anxiety that people have today."

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