Liberals try to bring back public option for health care, citing potential savings

By Noam N. Leavy
Tribune Washington Bureau (MCT)
Wednesday, July 21, 2010; 5:22 PM

WASHINGTON - At a time when both political parties are worrying about the federal deficit, an unexpected and unorthodox proposal is coming back from the shadows of last year's health-care debate the "public option." The idea of creating a major government health insurance program was roundly rejected last year, but the 128 House Democrats pushing to reconsider the idea are now advancing the argument that it would help hold down federal spending.

Their bill, which faces long odds, would allow Americans who do not get insurance at work to choose a government plan for their health coverage starting in 2014.

"There is all this concern about the deficit," said Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., a leading champion of the proposal. "Well, guess what, this would reduce the deficit because it saves so much money." Woolsey and her allies, including Reps. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois and Fortney "Pete" Stark of California, are armed with a new analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. It projects the public option could save the federal government $68 billion between 2014 an 2020, according to Democrats.

A government plan could save money with lower administrative costs and by paying hospitals and doctors less than commercial insurance plans, analysts have said; that could result in lower premiums and lower government subsidies for Americans who choose that plan over plans offered by commercial insurers.

Insurance companies, hospitals and other businesses say a public option would undermine existing employer-provided insurance and set the stage for a single-payer system.

Don't expect any Republican budget hawks to sign on, either (even though the $68 billion coincidently matches the savings that the leading House GOP health-care proposal would have generated, according to CBO).

Republicans lambasted the public option for much of last year as just more government.

With a full plate of legislative business, House Democratic leaders also have little interest in restarting a health-care debate that split their own ranks.

Woolsey said she is willing to wait. "This will be there for the next Congress," she said.


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