Gibbs Calls Public Option a 'Valuable Tool'

CQ Trancriptswire
Sunday, September 6, 2009; 1:07 PM

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS (Host): And I want to get to health care, but we've got to begin with this news that came in overnight. Van Jones, the president's green jobs czar, at about 12:12 a.m. he resigned, at least that's when we were notified of his resignation. He says he is the victim of a vicious smear campaign, saying people are using lies and distortions to distract and divide the country.

As you know, he has come under fire for past statements and actions. Does the president believe that he is the victim of a vicious smear campaign or does he believe that Jones's actions and words merited resignation?

WHITE HOUSE PRESS SEC. ROBERT GIBBS: Well, what Van Jones decided was that the agenda of this president was bigger than any one individual. The president thanks Van Jones for his service in the first eighth months, and helping to coordinate renewable energy jobs that are going to lay the foundation for our future economic growth.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But did the president want him to go?

GIBBS: Well, the president and the CEQ accepted his resignation because Van Jones, as he says in his statement, understood that he was going to get in the way of the president and ultimately this country moving forward on something as important as creating jobs in a clean energy economy.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So the president doesn't endorse in any way the things that Van Jones said before, the things he did?

GIBBS: He doesn't, but he thanks him for his service to the country.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let's move on to health care. We're going to see Robert Dole, the former Senate majority leader in a minute, part of our debate. And he said this week that the president, in order to get a fresh start on health care, has to introduce his own specific plan, his own legislation on health care, that's the way to get things started.

Is that what the president is going to do?

GIBBS: Well, George, I think if viewers for ABC and everybody else tune in to hear the president at 8:00 on Wednesday night, they'll leave that speech knowing exactly where the president stands, exactly what he thinks we have to do to get health care done -- health care reform done this year. And he intends to do it.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And what he won't accept as well?

GIBBS: Well, we prefer to outline the positive rather than the negative, but I'm sure he will draw some lines in the sand on that...


STEPHANOPOULOS: But how about this question about legislation, because there has been some talk that the president will actually draft legislative language. Is that what is happening right now?

GIBBS: Well, look, we've been looking at legislative language for months. You have now several different proposals in the House and the Senate that have made their way through the committee process.

Obviously the Senate Finance Committee continues to work. So you're going to have ideas that come at this from a couple of different directions. And the president has to take all of those strands and pull them together.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But he will do that and then he will put his ideas on the table?

GIBBS: Well, we're going to certainly, I think -- as I said, people will leave that speech knowing where he stands. And if it takes doing whatever to get health care done, the president is ready, willing, and able to go do that.

We are closer, George, than we have ever been before in insuring that we get some genuine insurance reforms that don't let insurance companies discriminate against pre-existing conditions, that we cut costs for families and small businesses, and provide some accessibility to the tens of millions who don't have health...

STEPHANOPOULOS: You've just identified the relatively non- controversial portions of the plan that have some bipartisan support. But the president facing a real dilemma over this public health insurance option.

He seems to be caught in something of a squeeze play. You've got the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, saying unless there is a strong public option, this bill can't pass the House. Yet you've got top Democrats in the Senate saying we can't get it through the Senate if there is a public option included.

So how does the president thread that needle?

GIBBS: Well, look, George, let's spend a couple of minutes, because I'm sure it will be a big subject today on your "Roundtable," on what a public option isn't. A public option, first of all, will not affect the health insurance for 160 million to 180 million that get it through employer-sponsored coverage.

We're talking about dealing with the individual and small business market of health insurance reform, right? So the vast majority of people, if you're on Medicare...


STEPHANOPOULOS: Aren't even eligible.

GIBBS: You're not even going to be affected in any way, shape, or form by a public option, right? We're just trying to provide -- the president is trying to provide choice and competition in a market, again, for individual and small business rates -- small business owners.

This will not be unfairly subsidized and compete against private insurers at an unfair basis. This will operate under the premiums that they collect.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So won't dictate Medicare rates.

GIBBS: It won't dictate those type of things -- let me give you a story, George. I have a friend in Alabama, where I'm from, who started a small business in January. We're all enormously proud of him starting a business.

Though the first thing he had to do was go find insurance for his family. So he entered the individual market in Alabama. Eighty-nine percent of people on the individual and small business market in Alabama get their insurance through one provider, Blue Cross/Blue Shield.

He is lucky, right? His family is healthy. And he was accepted to get coverage. But in talking to other small business owners, he found that a lot of them were denied coverage. He is lucky, again, because his family is healthy but, lord knows, George, if he loses his health insurance for any reason, and his family gets sick, he is going to be in a real bind.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So you're making...

GIBBS: We want to provide people like that in that market that are in the individual and small business market with something of an option. In this case a public option that provides choice and competition.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But I -- I recognize that. And the president has long said that he prefers...

GIBBS: And checks...


STEPHANOPOULOS: ... that. He wants a public option, but...

GIBBS: And he still does.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But -- he wants it, but will he sign a bill that doesn't include it? Because it can't get through the Senate.

GIBBS: Well, we're not going to prejudge what the process will be when we sign a bill, which the president expects to do this year. The president strongly believes that we have to have an option like this to provide choice and competition, to provide a check on insurance companies, because without it, again, we're going to have markets as big as a whole state of Alabama, almost 90 percent of which is dominated by one insurance company.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But is it essential? I mean, that's the key question. We've known for months that the president is for it. Is it essential to health care reform?

GIBBS: The president believes it is a valuable tool. And I think you'll hear him talk about it on Wednesday.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But not essential?

GIBBS: It's a valuable tool and provides choice and competition, something that you'll hear him talk about extensively on Wednesday.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So he -- let me just try to sum this up, then. The president, from what I can hear, is going to make the case for the public health insurance option -- for a form of the public insurance option on Wednesday.

But he is not going to say, if you don't bring me one, I veto the bill.

GIBBS: Well, I doubt we're going to get into heavy veto threats on Wednesday. We're going to talk about what we can do because we're so close to getting it done. He will talk about the public option and why he believes and continues to believe that it is a valuable component of providing choice and competition, it helps individuals and small businesses, at the same time provides a check on insurance companies so they don't dominate the market.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Even though he knows that means he is not going to get Republicans on the bill?

GIBBS: Well, we haven't closed the door on Republicans that are ready, able, and willing to work with the president to try to provide a solution for this.

And, George, I think if you talk to Republican members, both in the House and the Senate, the one thing they will come back from over this August break, regardless of all of the heat and light around town hall meetings, is you still have millions and millions of constituents telling leaders in Congress, Democrats and Republicans, that we have to get something done.

That failure is not an option because millions of Americans are watching their premiums skyrocket.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And we're going to talk to them in just a couple of minutes. Robert Gibbs, thank you very much.

GIBBS: Thank you, George.

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