As Obama talked strategy with Democratic leaders at the White House, the one idea that most appeals to his party’s liberal base lost ground in Congress. Prospects for a government-run plan, also known as “public option,” to compete with private insurers sank as a leading moderate Democrat, Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, said he could no longer support the idea.
After a month of contentious forums, Americans were seeking specifics from the president in his speech to a joint session of Congress at 5 p.m. PDT today.
Tuesday’s developments put Obama in a box. As a candidate, he opposed fines to force individuals to buy health insurance, and he supported setting up a public insurance plan. On Tuesday, at least one key Democrat publicly begged to differ.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., insisted the public plan is still politically viable. “I believe that a public option will be essential to our passing a bill in the House of Representatives,” she said.
Meanwhile, two prominent House Democrats backed away from a public option Tuesday, providing at least some leeway for Obama. Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., a leader of the 52-member Blue Dog coalition, said he could no longer back a government-run plan, a shift from his position just a few months ago.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said he still supports a public option, but could back legislation without it.
Some other leading liberals, including House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., pledged to vote against the final bill if the public option is dropped.
Other Democrats said they expect Obama to frame the public option as an important objective, but not worth the price of failure.
The latest proposal is a 10-year, $900-billion bipartisan compromise that Baucus, who heads the influential Finance Committee, was trying to broker. It would guarantee coverage for nearly all Americans, regardless of medical problems.
But the Baucus plan also includes the fines that Obama has rejected. In what appeared to be a sign of tension, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs pointedly noted that the administration had not received a copy of the plan before it leaked to lobbyists and news media Tuesday.
The Baucus plan would require insurers to take all applicants, regardless of age or health. But smokers could be charged higher premiums. And 60-year-olds could be charged five times as much for a policy as 20-year-olds.
Just as auto coverage is now mandatory in nearly all states, Baucus would require that all Americans get health insurance once the system is overhauled to make premiums more stable and affordable. Penalties for failing to do so would start at $750 a year for individuals and $1,500 for families. Households making more than three times the federal poverty level — about $66,000 for a family of four — would face the maximum fines. For families, it would be $3,800, and for individuals, $950.
Baucus said Tuesday he’s trying to get agreement from a small group of bipartisan negotiators in advance of Obama’s speech. “Time is running out very quickly,” he said. “I made that very clear to the group.”
Some experts consider the $900-billion price tag a relative bargain because the country now spends about $2.5 trillion a year on health care. But it would require hefty fees on insurers, drug companies and others in the health care industry to help pay for it.
President Barack Obama says the health care speech he will deliver at 5 p.m. PDT today will help the public understand what he is proposing and show that he’s open to new ideas for achieving his goals. The speech will be carried live on National Public Radio likely on most cable news networks.
A look at public option
The issue: Should Americans have the option of getting health insurance from a government plan that competes with private companies?
The politics: Many Democrats want to do away with private insurance and replace it with something resembling Medicare coverage for all, but that’s not politically feasible. Offering the choice of a government insurance plan was a compromise within the Democratic Party. But Republicans are adamantly opposed, saying it’s the first step to a government takeover of health care. Defeating the government plan also is the top priority for the insurance industry, and hospitals, doctors, and drugmakers have their own concerns about it. Unions strongly support the public option, and so does a majority of the public in opinion polls.
What it means: A public plan could expand coverage at a lower cost to taxpayers, but it may also put insurers out of business and squeeze hospital budgets. Alternatives being discussed include nonprofit, self-governed co-ops, and giving insurers a last chance to show they can keep costs in check before resorting to a government plan. Studies indicate that a public plan could co-exist with private insurance, if the government option is restricted to individuals and small businesses.
Ricardo Alonso-ZaldivarAssociated Press
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