Earlier versions of this article, including in the print edition of The Washington Post, incorrectly attributed a quote to Len Nichols, health policy director at the New America Foundation, instead of to Ron Pollack, vice president of Families USA. It was Pollack who said: "This issue has become so vituperative, a serious conversation about how to structure a public plan has gotten secondary attention."
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Health-Care Dialogue Alarms Obama's Allies
Yesterday, a spokeswoman clarified that Obama has not taken the idea off the table but is willing to consider any proposal that meets his broad goals. "The administration is open to all ideas for achieving those goals," Linda Douglass said.
To date, the health reform debate has been cordial, with a wide spectrum of interests talking up a willingness to compromise. The amiable tone stands in marked contrast to the vitriol of 1993 that quickly buried a reform effort by the Clintons.
But that amiable tone is precisely what troubles liberal advocacy groups such as Consumer Watchdog.
The California-based nonprofit, in unusually harsh rhetoric, is accusing the Obama administration and congressional Democrats of negotiating a deal with industry lobbyists at the expense of average Americans.
"This process has gotten away from the public because it is being carried out behind closed doors with lobbyists in the room but no consumer advocates," said Jamie Court, the group's president. "We've got to make our views known before we are presented with a fait accompli."
Court complained about efforts by top Senate Democrats to negotiate in private the broad outlines of what could become a comprehensive agreement. Over many months, Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.) have convened brainstorming sessions with lobbyists representing doctors, hospitals, insurers, drugmakers, the American Cancer Society, the seniors lobby AARP and others. The two chairmen reiterated yesterday that they plan to develop a single bill.
The formal legislative process will start today, when Baucus convenes the first meeting of the Senate Finance Committee.
But in a letter to Kennedy, Court chastised the longtime lawmaker for compromising on health legislation in the past and warned Kennedy against succumbing again to the "for-profit, waste-enhancing" private insurance industry.
"Don't let the institution of the United States Senate use your name and credibility for something that goes against the principles you fought for your entire life," it said.
Kennedy spokesman Anthony Coley said the senator "believes that Americans should have the option of buying a public insurance plan if they believe that's the best choice for their families."
Families USA has also been involved in the private talks.
"The meetings taking place on the Hill involve numerous consumer organizations," said Ron Pollack, vice president of the pro-reform liberal group. "We've had meetings that involved over 100 consumer organizations, providing them with a briefing and enabling their input."
Douglass disputed suggestions of a rift in the party. "The Democrats are extraordinarily unified this time around," she said.
Yet even administration allies acknowledged tensions over the public plan option.
"This issue has become so vituperative, a serious conversation about how to structure a public plan has gotten secondary attention," Pollack said.
Nichols, who has proposed creating a semi-public option that would have publicly appointed managers but no rate-setting authority, said the disagreement signals a new phase in the overall debate. As he put it: "We've gotten past the kumbaya phase."