As reports of compromise appear, push grows for public option

As President Obama continues his push for comprehensive health care reform and as reports emerge about “compromises” designed to win backing from Senate Blue Dog Democrats and Republicans, Health Care for America Now, a huge national coalition, and some unions have launched a new $650,000 television ad campaign targeting GOP leaders in the House and Senate and Republican members of Congress.

In support of a robust public option, the ad points out that while the Republicans take advantage of such a plan as members of Congress, they oppose giving the same benefit that would lower costs to both American consumers and small businesses. The ad blames their reluctance to back a public option on the millions of dollars in campaign contributions the lawmakers have taken from the health care industry.

The ad is running this week nationally and in the districts of Republican members of Congress who have spoken out against health care reform. The national version targets House Republican leader John Boehner, House Republican Whip Eric Cantor, Senate Majority Leader Mitchell McConnell, and Senate Republican Whip John Kyl. The national ads are paid for by HCAN, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

“These Republicans on Capitol Hill are working for the insurance industry, not the American people,” said AFSCME International President Gerald McEntee. “They are putting profits ahead of people, and the voters need to know it. Congress has to make real reform happen – Americans can’t wait for reform that guarantees quality, affordable health care for all.”

The 1.6 million member AFSCME, one of the leading members of HCAN, represents public service workers in hundreds of different jobs across the country.

“It’s shameful that elected officials who, because of a public plan, don’t have to worry about being able to see a doctor when they get sick would stand in the way of making sure every family and every business in our country has the same guarantee of quality, affordable care,” said Richard Kirsch, national campaign manager for HCAN. “Is their opposition to health insurance reform motivated by the millions of dollars in campaign contributions they’ve taken from the health care industry?”

The stepped up efforts on behalf of a bill that includes a strong public option come in response to reports that pressure is on in the halls of government to craft a compromise that would replace the public option with either a proposal for a non-profit co-operative or a mechanism for creating a public option only after it becomes clear that other measures are leaving too many people still uninsured.

AP has reported that remarks by the president in Colorado Sunday where, after giving detailed reasons for his support for a public option, he described that option as only part of his health care reform agenda, as indicative of his willingness to sacrifice it for the sake of compromise. Other reports cite remarks by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius who described the public option as “not the essential element” of the administration’s healthcare agenda and remarks by White House spokesman Robert Gibbs Sunday on the CBS program “Face the Nation.”

Pressed on whether the administration was willing to compromise on the public option, Gibbs would only say that the president has thus far sided with the notion that choice and competition can best be achieved with a public option.

Former Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean said this morning that he expected the House to pass a bill with a public option and the Senate to pass a bill, with 60 votes, that will not include a public option. He said that the two bills will then have to be reconciled and that if there is a strong enough push from people across the country combined with the fact that the final bill, under allowable “budget reconciliation procedures,” will need only a simple majority of 50 votes, “we will end up with the public option.”

There are some Blue Dogs in the Senate who, under this scenario, would be freed up to vote “no,” the thinking goes, to cover their so-called “right” flank without actually sabotaging passage of a bill with a public option.

Health care activists aren’t taking any chances on the ins and outs of the legislative process, however, and have called for a continued push for the public option during the closing weeks of August.

Dean said last week at a labor-backed “Netroots Nation” gathering in Pittsburgh that the only thing that made health reform legislation proposed by the House worth doing was the public option. “The public option is incremental reform,” Dean said, “but there is no incrementalism without the public option.”

Progressives in Congress are more determined than ever to push for the public option.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, said Sunday, “The only way we can be sure that very low-income people who work for companies that don’t offer insurance have access to it, is through an option that would give the private insurance companies a little competition.” The congresswoman, a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, also worked in the past as the chief psychiatric nurse at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Dallas.

Kirsch notes that even if the public option weren’t part of the Obama reform plan, “the right would be screaming about a ‘government take-over’ as loudly as it is now.” He noted how, during the recent period, the right shifted its focus to “scare stories about government-backed euthanasia.”

“If scuttling the public option won’t quiet the right, it will definitely quiet the left,” Kirsch warned. “And that would be disastrous to the prospects of Democrats passing legislation this fall. Giving people an alternative to the private health insurance industry is the one issue that highly motivates progressives. Over and over again at Health Care for America Now, it is what our tens of thousands of activists – from grassroots community people to high-dollar Democratic donors – want to talk about. For them it has become the measure of whether health reform is about real change or just a cosmetic lift to a broken system.

“Responding to those same voices,” Kirsch added, “four Democratic committees in two houses of Congress have passed legislation that includes a public option, and the President has consistently reaffirmed his support.”

He compared the GOP strategy for health reform to insurance company strategy for paying big medical claims, “delay and deny,” and suggested that “maybe there’s another reason that Republicans in Congress are so focused on killing the public option. They think that if they succeed in killing the public option they’ll cause mass desertion from the progressive army that’s powering the President’s agenda for reform.”