Debate over Obama health care plan intensifies

ByJohn Fritze, USA TODAY
June 14, 2009, 11:36 PM

WASHINGTON -- President Obama remains committed to a controversial government health insurance program as the White House prepares for a pivotal week in its drive to revamp the nation's health care system, Vice President Biden said Sunday.

Obama will speak about health care to the American Medical Association in Chicago on Monday. It is the latest group to raise concerns about a taxpayer-sponsored insurance program the administration says will drive down costs by competing with private insurers but that critics call a government takeover.

"We think there should be a public plan," Biden said on NBC's Meet the Press, adding that the administration could support the concept in a number of forms, including an expansion of the Medicare program. "You've got to have some competition."

Government-run health insurance has become one of the most contentious ideas in the debate as Democratic lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, try to move legislation through the Senate this summer.

For the second straight week, White House officials used appearances on Sunday morning news shows to tout the idea as a key component of reform, even as business groups and top Republicans raised concerns that the plan amounts to a federal takeover of health care.

"We can make incredible improvements in American health care," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on CBS' Face the Nation, "but I don't think having more government — in effect, putting Washington between you and your doctor — is the way to go."

Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Health and Human Services Department, said Obama does not want to dismantle the system in which millions receive insurance through employers. Instead, she told CNN's State of the Union, "he wants to strengthen the marketplace."

More details about public insurance and how lawmakers intend to pay for overhauling the health care system, which could cost more than $1 trillion, are likely to emerge this week when the Senate Finance Committee releases a draft bill. To ease concerns about cost, Obama said Saturday the administration could squeeze $313 billion in savings out of Medicare and Medicaid over the next decade. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, said he did not know whether those trims were realistic.

"There is a lot of waste in government-run programs generally," Grassley told Fox News Sunday. "Right now, I could not put a figure on that amount of money."

The American Medical Association, which represents 250,000 doctors and medical students, said in a statement last week it would oppose any public plan that forces doctors to participate or that expands Medicare. But the AMA said it could support "other variations currently under discussion in Congress."

One variation, proposed by Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., is the creation of a non-profit cooperative managed by its membership. Because it would not be run by the government, the co-op could offer a compromise to attract the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster and take a final vote in the Senate, Conrad said.

"And that, I don't believe, is possible with the pure public option," he told CNN.

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