Howard Dean: Public health insurance is 'core fight'

Winning a public health insurance option for all Americans is the “core fight” in the health care reform battle, former Gov. Howard Dean told more than 1,300 people in a national online conference organized by last night.

The Senate Finance Committee begins hearings on reforming health care coverage today, with conservatives in Congress and the insurance lobby waging “all-out war” on a public plan, MoveOn director Justin Ruben said.

Dean’s organization, Democracy for America, is working with MoveOn to mobilize public pressure on Congress to ensure that public health coverage is part of the health care reform legislation now being shaped. The timetable is short, with a package expected to be passed and signed by the president this fall.

Dean, a doctor and former Vermont governor, praised President Obama for pushing for serious health care reform with a well-funded multi-year program that includes a public plan that Americans can opt for.

He told the online meeting, “There’s a difference between insurance reform and health care reform. What makes it real is if there’s a public insurance option.”

Some single-payer advocates assail the public option as inadequate. Quentin Young, co-chair of Physicians for a National Health Program, in a letter to Politico today, dismissed Obama’s reform plan or others that retain private insurance “with or without a public option” as “placebos” that will not deliver the necessary cost savings.

Dean had a different take. “An awful lot of people would like to sign up for Medicare,” the public insurance plan for people 65 and over that has solid public support, he said. “That’s what the core fight is all about. The American people should have a choice. We have had a single-payer program [Medicare] for over 45 years, Congress has a single-payer plan. If people want it, they should have a choice.”

A woman in Wisconsin asked Dean about the role of “special interests,” recalling the industry-backed “Harry and Louise” scare ads that helped torpedo health care reform in the Clinton years. “How are you going to respond when they come around for round two?” she asked.

Private insurance interests are “putting up a lot of money” to try to block a public health plan, Dean said. He declared, “We’re going to have an all-out fight for this. We’re not going to go down again.”

Among the key players in Congress, he singled out Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who chairs the Finance Committee. Dean warned that, while Baucus has “nominally” been in favor of the public option, “he also says he might trade it away.”

“If members of Congress knew how strongly people feel about it, they would think twice about voting against it,” Dean said.

Earlier yesterday, Sen. Baucus said, “The stars are finally aligned this year for passage of meaningful health care reform.” In a phone press conference organized by the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund, he said his committee was holding hearings on three areas of health care: delivery — including quality, how to reimburse providers, increasing primary care and cutting costs; coverage — who gets covered and for what; and financing.

Responding to a question asking “How important is the public option in the package?” Baucus called it “one of two or three 800-pound gorillas.” While saying that “everything is on the table,” the senator said the public option has been “pushed a little over on the side of the table,” saying, “We are trying to gain momentum with other measures first.”

Dean and Democracy for America have launched a website,, where the public can sign a petition affirming, “A public option is the only way to guarantee health care for all Americans and its inclusion is non-negotiable.” People can also sign-up to canvass, make phone calls or organize a house party.

Health Care for America Now, a coalition of labor unions, social justice groups and others, is also mobilizing for the public health care option. Its web site,, urges people to “sign up, call, get local — do something right now.”

When he was governor of Vermont, Dean told last night’s online gathering, his administration contracted out a chunk of health care administration, but wound up taking it back because they found that the state could run it much better and cheaper.

“A government system is much cheaper and more efficient than a private one,” he said, noting that in the private sector costs are ratcheted up because profits need to be made, CEO mega-salaries need to be paid, and huge sums are spent on advertising.

But, he emphasized, if people like the private insurance they have, they should be able to keep it. The point is, people should have the choice, and it should not be stymied by conservative lawmakers and insurance companies.

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This article has been updated to correctly identify the sponsor of the phone conference with Sen. Baucus -- the Center for American Progress Action Fund. An earlier version of the article contained an error in the name of that organization.