“The Public Option: All is Not Lost”
October 07, 2009, 4:00am

By James Riley

Last week the Senate Finance Committee rejected proposals from Sen. Rockefellor (D-WV) and Sen. Schumer (D-NY) to create a public option to compete with private insurance companies. Schumer’s proposal, also known as the “level playing field” approach, would help hold down costs by operating as a non-profit. And instead of setting prices like other plans it would negotiate rates with doctors and hospitals. Still, Republicans opposed the proposal, while Democratic senators Conrad, Baucus, and Lincoln did not lend their support.

However, all is not lost. Democrats in the House have since convened to merge their bills—from the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and three other committees—that do include a public health insurance plan. So the final bill can still win a majority vote. Rep. Pelosi (D-CA) is standing firm, and Rep. Hoyer (D-MD) believes that Democrats can win the fight for a public option on the Senate floor, or amend the bill during the conference when both chambers meet.

“We will keep fighting so the bill that lands on the president’s desk has a good, strong, robust public option,” Schumer reportedly said.

Republicans admitted that they do not want to see a public health insurance plan go through. In effect, this will only protect special interests at the expense of average Americans. Sen. Ensign (R-NV) was reported saying, “Does anybody believe Congress would let this public plan go away once it has a constituency?

Jacob Hacker, a political science professor at Yale, has said that “a public option is at the core of meaningful reform.” And that we must continue to “energize and mobilize” so that we maximize our shared voice. Hacker says, “The most important thing that progressives can do is get even more engaged than they have been up to now.”

Also last week, a small group of about 50 people organized themselves and protested outside of a private insurer’s corporate office and accused the company of placing “profit before patients.” Their grassroots approach aims to challenge special interests that deliberately misrepresent what a public health insurance plan is. In fact, a public option would maximize the bargaining leverage of the underinsured and bring down costs by challenging private insurance companies through real competition.

This protest was a part of many small grassroots mobilizations to take place across the country during October while legislators finalize the bill. The organizers are timing their protests around the legislative process as a way of pressing Congress to remain responsive to their demands. “Organizers from several groups across the country, with networks in 40 states, had been working together for about six weeks on a campaign they called Mobilization for Healthcare for All.” Over the next five weeks, grassroots efforts can make a difference of historic proportions.

Paul Krugman has made a clarion call, “Democrats have to take a stand against Reaganism—against the presumption that if the government does it, it’s bad.”
A majority of Americans (65 percent) support a public health insurance plan. As Hacker suggests, we must challenge oursleves to hold our senator to account, and press them to deliver a bill that enlarges affordable coverage and increases accountability. We should be very concerned, but we should not be afraid. The public option is not dead.