- The Washington Times - Monday, August 17, 2009

In the face of strong public criticism at town-hall meetings and skepticism on Capitol Hill, Obama administration officials said Sunday that the president is willing to accept a health care proposal that includes nonprofit health insurance cooperatives rather than insist on a government-run insurance program.

The move was a major concession to conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans that quickly won applause from several lawmakers concerned that reform efforts were being sunk by fears that such a federally subsidized program would lead to a government takeover of health care.

“Look, the fact of the matter is there are not the votes in the United States Senate for the public option. There never have been,” Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, said on “Fox News Sunday.” “So to continue to chase that rabbit, I think, is just a wasted effort.”

Some prominent liberal Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, reiterated their faith in the public option. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas said it would be “very, very difficult” to win her support for a bill that did not include a public option.

Spokesmen for the top two Republicans on Capitol Hill were cautious when asked for reactions Sunday afternoon.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs appeared on Sunday’s political talk shows to say that what the president wants is to introduce competitors to private insurance plans, and whether this is done by a government-run insurance program or private cooperatives is not important.

Mrs. Sebelius said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that while President Obama “continues to be very supportive of some options for consumers” in the health insurance market, a government-run, public-option plan is “not the essential element.”

“I think the president is just continuing to say, let’s not have this be the only focus of the conversation,” she said, though she promised that the final version of the bill would improve “choice and competition” for consumers.

“I think there will be a competitor to private insurers,” she said. “That’s really the essential part … you don’t turn over the whole new marketplace to private insurance companies and trust them to do the right thing. We need some choices; we need some competition.”

Mr. Gibbs spoke similarly on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday, saying Mr. Obama’s goal is to offer more “choice and competition” for Americans seeking health care insurance.

“The president has thus far sided with the notion that that can best be done through a public option,” Mr. Gibbs said. “The bottom line for this for the president is, what we have to have is choice and competition in the insurance market.”

Mr. Gibbs added that, if the government does expand its role as a health care provider - as it already does for millions of seniors and low-income Americans through Medicare and Medicaid - it will not kill the private insurance market.

“I don’t think [Mr. Obama] was saying that what we were going to do is create the Postal Service for health care,” Mr. Gibbs said. “The president has talked about [how] health insurance reform will build on the way that millions and millions Americans receive their health insurance. That is through their employer-sponsored system.”

Until now, the administration has insisted that a government-run health insurance plan is vital to help cover the almost 50 million Americans without medical insurance.

As recently as Mr. Obama’s July 18 weekly address, the president said that any plan he signs must include an insurance exchange, “including a public option to increase competition and keep insurance companies honest.”

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