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Public Insurance Advocates Don't Want Compromise on Public Option

Cheryl Clark, for HealthLeaders Media, June 24, 2009

In an effort to thwart growing skepticism of a public health insurance option, proponents of the idea are becoming more strident in urging the White House to keep its eye on the prize: Do not compromise in overhauling the U.S. healthcare system so all Americans can have affordable health coverage.

"Without a public option, the parties that comprise America's non-system of healthcare–private insurers, doctors, hospitals, drug companies, and medical suppliers–have little or no incentive to supply high quality care at lower cost," said Robert Reich, former labor secretary and public policy professor at the University of California Berkeley.

"And that's precisely why the public option has become such a lightning rod. The American Medical Association is dead set against it, big Pharma has rejected it out of hand, and the biggest insurance companies won't even consider it. No other issue in the current healthcare debate is so fiercely opposed by the medical establishment and their lobbies [are] now swarming over Capitol Hill," he said.

"Of course they don't want it. The public option could squeeze their profits and force them to undertake major reforms. That's the whole point," he added.

Reich was joined in a news conference yesterday by Jacob Hacker, co-director of the UC Berkeley School of Law's Center on Health, Economic and Family Security, one of the leading advocates of the public plan option.

"We can't afford not to act right now," Hacker said. "We can't afford to cut the heart out of this reform legislation."

To reinforce their points, they cited a new report from Health Care for America Now, which documented that in the last nine years, the cost of health insurance has risen 120% while wages grew by only 29%. Health expenses have been the underlying reason for thousands of bankruptcies, which have prompted thousands of employers to discontinue coverage for their workers and caused many people to delay getting needed care. Lack of health insurance, the report said, causes 22,000 U.S. deaths each year.

Reich and Hacker spoke as the lawmakers and health policy experts are more seriously entertaining a proposal that would substitute smaller health insurance purchasing cooperatives for the public option, an idea proffered by North Dakota Democrat Sen. Kent Conrad.

Reich said "the strength of opposition (to the public plan) along with the president's own commitment to making the emerging bill bipartisan, seems to be leading to some very oddball compromises on the Hill, particularly in the Senate," Reich said.

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