Public option becomes real option in health care debate

Democratic leaders in the Senate and House have concluded that a government-run insurance plan is the cheapest way to expand health coverage, and they sought Friday to rally support for the idea, prospects for which have gone in a few short weeks from bleak to bright.

The shift in momentum is so dramatic that many lawmakers now predict that President Obama will sign a final bill that includes some form of government-sponsored insurance for people who do not receive coverage through the workplace. Even Democrats with strong reservations about expanding government’s role in the health-care system say they are reconsidering the approach in hopes of making low-cost plans broadly available.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) sought support Friday for expansive versions of the public option as they prepared to send reform legislation to the Senate and House floors. Their goal is to pass bills with similar versions of the public insurance option so that final talks between the two chambers can focus on other issues that could prove more difficult to resolve.

The public option emerged as a flash point in the reform debate at the outset, with liberals championing it as a precursor to a single-payer system and conservatives warning that it would lead to rationing. The rhetoric reached a fever pitch in hundreds of raucous town-hall meetings during the August congressional recess, leading Democrats — including Obama — to back off the idea for fear that it would sink overall reform legislation.

On Friday, congressional leaders marveled at how quickly the landscape has changed. “This is an exact quote: ‘Off the table,’ ” House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (S.C.) said, recalling the headlines earlier this month when the Senate Finance Committee rejected two versions of the public option in its reform bill.

Clyburn said the debate is no longer whether to include a public option, but “whether or not we will get this form of a public option or that form of a public option.” Since the talk of “death panels” at town-hall meetings in August, Clyburn said, the political climate has changed as voters have come to understand “that all of this foolishness was just that — foolishness. Nobody wants to pull the plug on Grandma.”

Full Story in The Washington Post

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