- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Many liberal health care advocates, who have embraced President Obama’s pledge to push for universal health care, are growing worried that Democrats in Congress will succumb to Republican pressure and sell the plan short.

A government-run health insurance plan for middle-class Americans that would supplement — or even replace — the private insurance industry appears less likely than only a few weeks ago, as Democrats grapple with the political realities of Republican opposition and a concerned public.

“No one knows what’s going to come out of this and people are more nervous that there will be too much compromise,” said Dr. James Floyd, a health researcher with the left-leaning advocacy group Public Citizen.

Much of the left’s consternation lies with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, who has taken the lead on drafting a health care reform bill. Many view Mr. Baucus, an easygoing lawmaker who works well with Republicans, as too willing to compromise.

“The question is, is that the right profile for the lead architect on health care reform — that he would compromise to get a product that may be bipartisan but doesn’t have the details we need in order to have good health care reform bill?” said Jerry Flanagan, health care policy director for the liberal Consumer Watchdog group.

Mr. Baucus has frayed the nerves of many liberals by toning down his enthusiasm in recent weeks for a government-run, or public option, health insurance plan that would compete with the private sector.

While the senator has insisted that a government-run insurance plan is still on the negotiating table, he told a gathering of reporters last month, that “it might be a bit on the side of the table,” hinting he instead may focus more on reforming the existing private insurance industry.

His comment is in sharp contrast to his white paper released in November, which called for a public option insurance plan to play a central roll in health care reform.

“It’s unclear what he means,” Mr. Flanagan said. “I think there are some indicators in his public comments … that he’s willing to interpret public option pretty widely.”

Yet even if a public option insurance plan is included in a final bill, many on the left worry it will be diluted to the point of being ineffective at best, or a burden to the health care system at worst.

“In much the same way (the) Medicare Advantage (program) was able to swindle money away from Medicare funds, I think private insurance can do the same with the public option,” Dr. Floyd said. “However public option is defined upfront it will almost certainly be watered down so that it becomes a dumping ground for patients who are constantly ill.”

Other options

Many supporters of universal health care coverage also are upset that Democrats, including Mr. Obama, aren’t willing to at least consider replacing the current private health insurance system with a so-called single-payer plan — an option in which doctors, hospitals and other health care providers would be paid from a single national fund administered by the government.

By refusing to consider the single-payer option, Democrats would forfeit a crucial bargaining chip with Republicans, meaning that any compromise with Republicans would swing too far toward the center or right, liberals say.

“It’s striking that the issue of taxing employer-provided health benefits is considered to be a legitimate policy or financing option, but that a policy debate on the merits of single-payer, which has clear advantages, is off the table,” said Michael Lighty, public policy director for the California Nurses Association and the National Nurses Organizing Committee.

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