President Obama on Thursday held his first health care-focused event outside Washington to push for a massive expansion of coverage for uninsured Americans, including a government-run “public option” which is vigorously opposed by Republicans and some industry groups, during a town hall meeting in Green Bay.
The president’s trip to Wisconsin marks a new phase in the Obama administration’s push for health care reform, as lawmakers on Capitol Hill move closer to hammering out the make-or-break details on how to provide care for the 46 million Americans who currently are without health insurance coverage.
Since taking office, Mr. Obama, who wants a bill finished by the end of this year, has deferred to Congress on the details of health care reform, allowing them to hash out and debate the most controversial items, such as whether or not there will be a government-run option and whether or not employer-provided benefits will be taxed.
The president came out in favor of a public plan last week for the first time in a letter to lawmakers, and stated his support for it at a public event for the first time Thursday.
“I also strongly believe that one of the options should be a public insurance option, because if the private insurance companies have to compete with a public option, it will keep them honest and it will help keep their prices down,” Mr. Obama said, as the crowd inside Southwest High School cheered.
Republicans insist that a government option for insurance will actually drive private insurers out of the market because they will not be able to compete with the taxpayer-funded plan. The federally run plan, they say, will not necessarily have to be profitable, while private sector plans must make money to stay in business.
“It amounts to a government takeover of health care, and it would force millions of Americans off their own plans and into a government-sponsored plan,” said House Minority Leader John Boehner, Ohio Republican.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said that “one estimate suggests that 119 million Americans could lose the private coverage they have as a consequence of the government plan.”
Mr. Obama took on his critics directly in Green Bay.
“I don’t know how clearly I can say this: If you’ve got health insurance that you’re happy with through the private sector, then we’re not going to force you to do anything,” he said. “It’s not clear that [objections are] based on any evidence as much as it is their thinking, their fear that somehow once you have a public plan government will take over the entire health system.
“That’s going to be a significant debate. All we’re trying to make sure is there is an option out there where the free market fails. And we’ve got to admit that the free market has not worked perfectly when it comes to health care,” he said.
The American Medical Association, the country’s largest physician organization with about 250,000 members, on Thursday said they were opposed to a public option, which was first reported by the New York Times. Mr. Obama will address the group Monday in Chicago.
In Green Bay on Thursday, however, Mr. Obama did not mention the idea of taxing employer-provided health insurance, a proposal that he criticized during the presidential campaign but has since signaled he is open to.