Wednesday, September 2, 2009

We Really Need the Public Option

As predicted, the Congressional recess over August was a bitter fight over healthcare reform. But instead of helping to settle things, it looks like the issue has become more polarized than ever. Before it was a question between Democrats and Republicans of whether a healthcare bill needed to be passed. Now there is an even bigger battle among the Democrats as to whether the so-called public option must be a part of the bill to win their support.

What complicates things is that there is confusion by some on what the public option really is which is an offering to provide government insurance coverage similar to Medicare for those who are unable to find satisfactory choices among the private insurers. President Obama himself said that this was a necessary part of healthcare reform to in his words “keep insurance companies honest.”

In contrast, we have this
whopper by Republican Senator Jon Kyl, one of many bought and paid for by the health insurance industry.

“The health insurance industry is one of the most regulated industries in America,” said Sen. Jon Kyl (R., Ariz.) on the Senate floor Monday. “They don’t need to be ‘kept honest’ by the government.”

But after President Obama first said how necessary the public option was, he then backed off by saying that it was only a “sliver” of the healthcare reform package. This enraged liberals which caused Obama to then clarify that he still favored the public option but would consider alternatives. All of this waffling has caused Obama’s approval ratings to fall, especially with the liberal wing of his party who worked so hard to get him elected.

An important point that needs to be made here is that the support for the public option is much stronger than many in media and government have led on.
This New York Times/CBS News poll from June shows that 72% overall favor a public option. But what is amazing is that 50% of Republicans also favor it! So one has to ask if the Republicans’ solidarity in opposing any reform in Congress really represents their rank and file constituency rather than the health insurance industry that financially supports many of them.

To be sure, there are some powerful advocates of the public option such as former presidential candidate and Democratic National Committee Chairman
Howard Dean who is also a physician.

Americans deserve the right to choose their own healthcare. Congress must act to give Americans more choices for their personal healthcare by allowing universal availability of a public healthcare option like Medicare. Limiting choice to for-profit insurance only is the same broken healthcare system we have right now.
Even more noteworthy is former Cigna executive and now whistleblower Wendell Potter who while with Cigna was part of their campaign to discredit any attempts at healthcare reform. Here is an excerpt of his interview with
Guernica Magazine.
Guernica: Do you think the public option is important?

Wendell Potter: It’s essential. Reform without the public option would be far less meaningful and effective. The public option may not go as far as people would like in some ways, but we need a mechanism that controls costs and makes healthcare more available to citizens. It would go a long way toward keeping the insurance industry more honest, as the president has said.
At this point, I have to put in a word about the so-called liberal media. If more people had a chance to read and hear what Wendell Potter has to say, surely there would be more voices in favor of reform. But while Potter has gotten some exposure on Bill Moyers Journal on PBS and on MSNBC shows that cater to an already liberal audience, he has gotten curiously little exposure on the mainstream networks. For example, why hasn’t 60 Minutes done a story on him? Could it be that they and others are afraid of incurring the wrath (and possible loss of advertising revenue) from the big insurance companies by putting him on their air?

I have opined in a previous posting that if the public option does not make it into the final version of the bill, the bill should be allowed to die. Without a public option, if all of the uninsured were then mandated to buy insurance from the private companies, it could well result in a windfall for the health insurance industry without any real control over the cost of coverage. Indeed, many of the more liberal Democrats in the House have drawn this line in the sand.

But others say that if the bill has other vitally needed reforms like the elimination of pre-existing conditions, it would be a disservice to the uninsured to allow the bill to die. And after all, half a loaf is said to better than none.

In effect, we now have a giant game of ‘chicken’. For those who want to hold out for a bill that includes the public option, there is a chance that if the bill is then defeated, the opportunity for healthcare reform would be lost for some time and the Democrats will again crash and burn just like when they lost the healthcare reform battle back in 1993 under the Clintons.

But this is not 1993. With the ever increasing number of uninsured people since then, the need for healthcare reform has stirred so much passion among US citizens that if a bill is not passed this time, it will surely not be long before enough of the voting public will demand another try to pass a bill to finally get some meaningful reform. So instead of negotiating out of fear and perhaps having to accept a bad bill just to get something passed, I hope that President Obama will have the courage to go after truly meaningful reform which includes a public option. In his upcoming address to Congress on healthcare next week, we will hopefully find out how much (if any) courage he really has!

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