Sunday, August 16, 2009

President Obama’s health secretary said Sunday that a government alternative to private health insurance is “not the essential element” of the administration’s health care overhaul.

Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of health and human services, said the White House would be open to co-ops instead of a government-run public option, a sign Democrats want a compromise so they can declare a victory on the must-win showdown.

“I think there will be a competitor to private insurers,” she said. “That’s really the essential part, is 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.”

The White House indicated it could jettison the contentious public option and settle on insurance cooperatives as an acceptable alternative, a move embraced by some Republicans lawmakers who have strongly opposed the administration’s approach so far.

Officials from both political parties reached across the aisle in an effort to find compromises on proposals they left behind when they returned to their districts for an August recess. Mr. Obama has been pressing for the government to run a health insurance organization to help cover the nation’s almost 50 million uninsured.

Sen. Richard C. Shelby, Alabama Republican, said co-ops might be a politically acceptable alternative as “a step away from the government takeover of the health care system” that the GOP has assailed.

Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat and chairman of the Senate’s budget committee, pushed the co-op model as an alternative, saying it has worked in other business models.

As proposed by Mr. Conrad, the co-ops would receive federal startup money but then would operate independently of the government. They would have to maintain the same financial reserves that private companies are required to keep to handle unexpectedly high claims.

Republicans say a public option would have unfair advantages that would drive private insurers out of business. Critics say co-ops would not be genuine public options for health insurance.

Meanwhile, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, said he would return to the bargaining sessions to find a bipartisan solution to a health care problem that has long vexed Washington.

“I’m always ready to go back to the bargaining table,” Mr. Hatch said. “Heck, I’ve probably helped pass more bipartisan health care legislation than anybody I know.”

That legislation, however, seemed likely to strike end-of-life counseling sessions. Former Alaskan Gov. Sarah Palin has called the session “death panels,” a label that has drawn rebuke from her fellow Republicans as well as Democrats.

Even so, Mrs. Sebelius said the proposal was likely to be dropped from the final bill.

“We wanted to make sure doctors were reimbursed for that very important consultation if family members chose to make it, and instead it’s been turned into this scare tactic and probably will be off the table,” she said. “And that’s not good news for the American public and not good news for family members.”

Mrs. Sebelius spoke on CNN’s “State of the Union” and ABC’s “This Week.” Mr. Shelby and Mr. Conrad appeared on “Fox News Sunday.” Mr. Hatch was interviewed on “This Week.”

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