A public option as part of health reform cleared a major legislative hurdle today, July 15, with passage of the Quality, Affordable Health Coverage for All Americans Act in the Senate HELP Committee.

The bill would expand health care coverage for tens of millions of Americans who currently lack insurance and will provide tens of millions more with more choices about which health plan suits them best.

A recent study published by the Department of Health and Human Services showed that many parts of the country are dominated by just one or two health insurance companies, forcing limits on choices and little market control over the cost of premiums and other medical expenses.

In addition, according to a recent report from the Center for American Progress, insurance companies typically refuse to provide coverage to people because of what they determine to be ‘preexisting conditions’ or medical needs that may limit insurance company profits from a particular individual. Usually, such decisions are made by insurance company bureaucrats rather than doctors or other medical experts.

The aim of the public option, as President Obama has repeatedly argued, is to provide Americans with more choices, choices about their insurer and about who their doctor will be. In addition, those choices will be made more affordable.

In a statement made just after the Senate committee passed the bill, President Obama urged final passage of the health reform package. When health reform becomes a reality, he said, ‘[n]o longer will insurance companies be able to deny coverage based on a preexisting medical condition. No longer will Americans have to worry about their health insurance if they lose their job, change their job or open a new business.’

In addition, the President affirmed the strategic and moral need for a public option in health reform. He remarked, ‘Among the choices that would be available in the exchange would be a public health insurance option that would make health care affordable by increasing competition, providing more choices, and keeping the insurance companies honest.’

Sen. Christopher Dodd, D, Conn., who chairs the Senate HELP Committee in Sen. Ted Kennedy’s absence, expressed confidence that health reform would pass in 2009. ‘In a country of this great affluence, and this great ability, with the professional class we have in our health care area, we ought to be able to a lot better than we’ve been doing,’ Dodd said.

‘It’s not longer just unacceptable, the health care system,’ Sen. Dodd added, ‘it’s unsustainable.’ The provisions in the bill passed by the committee will expand access, affordable and control costs, he vowed.

A group of House committees began work on another universal health care bill introduced earlier this week.

Both won a ringing endorsement from AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, who said, ‘We are truly moving toward a historic moment when Americans will finally have access to quality, affordable health care.’