- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 4, 2009

President Obama told key Senate Democrats on Wednesday that he wants a government-funded public insurance plan as part of an overall health care reform bill, giving an explicit endorsement for the first time despite opposition from many Republicans and leading industry groups.

“I strongly believe that Americans should have the choice of a public health insurance option operating alongside private plans,” Mr. Obama wrote, following up a White House meeting Tuesday with Sens. Max Baucus and Edward M. Kennedy. “This will give them a better range of choices, make the health care market more competitive, and keep insurance companies honest.”

The letter to the senators marked the first clear indication Mr. Obama will push for the public insurance option as part of the final reform bill, whose drafting the president has largely left to congressional negotiators.

The letter also sets an October deadline for passing a reform bill. Mr. Baucus, Montana Democrat, chairs the Senate Finance Committee and Mr. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, is chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

The two committees are expected to write up separate bills this month and then merge the two.

A public insurance option has become the most contentious aspect of the health care reform debate. Most Democrats are in favor of setting up a government-funded program similar to Medicare that would be available to those who can’t afford private insurance, as a way to ensure that all Americans would have coverage.

Republicans say a public program would distort the market and drive private insurers out of business.

“I don’t want to speak for 40 Republicans, but I wouldn’t be afraid to say I’d be speaking for at least 35 Republicans that [the] public option is a problem,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee.

Until now, Mr. Obama has refrained from detailing the specifics of a health care reform plan, setting out overall goals but saying he wanted the specifics to emerge through the legislative process.

Wednesday marked the first time he took a specific stand on the public plan option. Mr. Obama also said he supports state-run insurance exchanges, where consumers could compare health insurance choices.

Mr. Obama also said he’s open to a mandate that all Americans carry health insurance coverage, as long as it includes an exception for the poor and small businesses. He was opposed to a mandate during the presidential campaign.

Democrats on Capitol Hill say they are still far from a deal on a bill.

“I wouldn’t begin to even tell you where the Democrats stand on all of this in the committee, though I think most are in favor of some form of a public option,” said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat. Senate HELP Committee Democrats held a closed-door meeting Wednesday to discuss the health care package.

The committee plans to bring its proposal to the public next week, and Democrats said they’re still trying for a bipartisan bill.

“Every one of us would prefer strong bipartisan support if we can get it,” said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat and member of the committee.

Mr. Dodd said lawmakers are prepared to put in full five-day weeks of drafting and voting in a bid to complete the Senate bill this summer.

“I made the request to [Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid] that in July, if we’re able to complete this process, that we be here Monday to Friday in July, and into August if we have to,” he said.

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