- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 19, 2009

White House officials insisted Tuesday that the administration’s support for a taxpayer-funded “public” health insurance plan has not changed, despite statements from top officials over the weekend that called into question President Obama’s commitment to the idea.

Facing strong complaints from liberal Democrats, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters that the press had “overreacted” to comments from Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius over the weekend that Mr. Obama won’t insist on including the public health insurance plan in a reform bill.

“It’s crazy,” Mr. Gibbs said. “It’s not a signal. If it was a signal, then it was a dog whistle that we started blowing about three months ago and it just got picked up.”

But a liberal faction of Democrats on Capitol Hill interpreted Ms. Sebelius’ comments as a sign the White House wouldn’t insist on the public plan in the final health care reform package. The House Democratic Progressive Caucus sent a letter to Mr. Obama warning that its 60 members would not support a health care reform bill without the measure, setting up a potential civil war among Democrats over the public plan when Congress comes back to Washington next month.

Republicans have long opposed the idea, arguing that it would tilt the insurance market, drive private insurers out of business and lead to a government “takeover” of health care. A handful of moderate Democrats have been skeptical of the program as well, a potential death blow to the president’s top domestic priority.

Third-party groups, such as the AFL-CIO and a number of individual unions, said they plan to “forcefully” inform Congress of their support for the public plan.

Ms. Sebelius told CNN’s John King on Sunday that the public plan is “not the essential element” in a reform package. The comment came after two weeks of lawmaker town-hall meetings, many featuring hostile questions from constituents angry over the public plan and Mr. Obama’s health care plan in general.

Mr. Obama, while never drawing a line in the sand on the public option, has been a strong supporter of the measure in the past.

“Any plan I sign must include an insurance exchange, a one-stop shopping marketplace where you can compare the benefits, cost and track records of a variety of plans including a public option to increase competition and keep insurance companies honest and choose what’s best for your family,” Mr. Obama said in a July 18 address.

The president has often cited the public plan as a vehicle to challenge insurance companies, who have a near-monopoly in some markets, and keep them honest.

“I strongly believe that Americans should have the choice of a public health insurance option operating alongside private plans,” the president wrote in a letter to Democratic Sens. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Max Baucus of Montana on June 2. “This will give them a better range of choices, make the health care market more competitive, and keep insurance companies honest.

Ms. Sebelius voiced support for the creation of health insurance co-operatives, a plan designed as a compromise between the government-run plan and a purely private insurance market. Some Democrats, such as Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, have said they would support co-ops as a public option alternative, but only if the co-ops could compete fairly with insurers and would be available immediately.

Many Republicans have said they are open to the co-op idea, but won’t commit to supporting it until they get more details. Others warned that the co-op is merely be a public plan in disguise.

Meanwhile Tuesday, AARP - a high-profile lobbying group in the reform debate - said it lost 60,000 of its 40 million members since July 1 after it announced its support for health care reform.

The nation’s biggest senior citizen group has not endorsed the public option or any particular plan, but has strongly campaigned for reform. Another 1.8 million members renewed or joined the group over the same period, according to a spokesman. He added that AARP lost nearly 80,000 members in 2003 when liberals were unhappy with the group’s support for the Bush administration’s Medicare plan.

Christina Bellantoni contributed to this report.

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