- The Washington Times - Friday, June 12, 2009

President Obama’s first trip outside Washington to promote health care reform Thursday marked a new phase in the health care fight and intensified the debate over whether a government-run insurance option should help cover roughly 46 million uninsured Americans, even as a compromise plan began to emerge.

As lawmakers on Capitol Hill move closer to hammering out the make-or-break details, Mr. Obama used his own formidable political capital to push the reform effort forward, after taking a side last week on one of the debate’s two most controversial issues.

The president came out for the first time in favor of a public insurance plan in a letter to lawmakers last week 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 to the cheers of a crowd inside Southwest High School in Green Bay, Wis.

Republicans insist that a government insurance option actually would drive private insurers out of the market because they would not be able to compete with the taxpayer-funded plan. They say the federally-run plan would 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 A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.

Mr. Boehner also said that Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats are rushing forward with the plan “so that no one will understand the implications of what’s about to happen.” Indeed, Mr. Obama said Thursday, “If we don’t get it done this year, we’re probably not going to get it done.”

Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat and finance committee chairman, said Thursday that his panel will release its proposed legislation in draft form on June 17, with a vote expected the week of June 22.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which leaked its draft legislation late last week and released it officially Tuesday, held its first hearing on the bill Thursday and will begin its markup next Tuesday.

In Green Bay, a large crowd of several hundred people lined Mr. Obama’s motorcade route to his town hall event to protest government-run health care. Signs in the crowd said, “No socialism” and “Taxed Enough Yet?”

Mr. Obama said concerns about a government-run insurance option were based on irrational emotion and little else.

“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, said Thursday, just days before Mr. Obama will address the group Monday in Chicago, that it opposes a public insurance option.

Opposition is also mounting in the business community. Randy Johnson, a vice president with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told the Associated Press that the Chamber is convening a Friday strategy meeting of business groups, saying that alarm is growing over Democratic health care proposals. Mr. Johnson testified at a Senate hearing Thursday in opposition to a proposal that would require employers to purchase health care for their employees.

Capitol Hill focused Thursday on a compromise bill being crafted by Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, that would set up, as one option among others, public plans with a “co-operative” structure — a nonprofit group beholden in some way to policyholders.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee, said the co-op plan would be “a private-sector option,” but other Republicans expressed caution at the idea. Not all liberals were impressed with the idea either; former Clinton administration Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich called the plan a “bamboozle” in a blog posting.

In Green Bay, Mr. Obama did not even mention the second-most-contentious issue in the health-care debate: the idea of taxing employer-provided health insurance. Mr. Obama vigorously criticized Republican rival John McCain during the presidential campaign for proposing that but has since signaled he is open to such a plan.

Mr. Baucus has indicated he favors the idea, though he said this week the tax would only apply to plans worth a certain amount.

Mr. Obama hammered his critics and implied they have no ideas.

“So to those who criticize our efforts, I ask them, ‘What is the alternative?’ ” Mr. Obama said. “We have reached a point where doing nothing about the cost of health care is no longer an option.”

But Republicans, led by Sen. Tom Coburn, of Oklahoma, and Rep. Paul D. Ryan, of Wisconsin, did propose an alternative last month, along with a handful of other Republicans, called the Patients’ Choice Act, which would do away with the system of employer-based insurance plans and give tax credits of $2,300 per individual and $5,700 per family to pay for insurance that is portable between jobs.

“The difference between the president’s rhetoric and the substance of his plans is nothing short of astounding,” Mr. Ryan said in an editorial placed on the Web site of a Wisconsin newspaper shortly after the president’s town hall event concluded.

“He knows that there are alternatives, better alternatives where the patient, not the government, is at the center of health care in America. He knows that we have introduced the Patients Choice Act of 2009. He knows this and is simply hoping that the American people don’t know it,” Mr. Ryan said.

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