Obama renews support for public insurance plan

by Kim Dixon, Susan Heavey, Susan Cornwall and Thomas Ferraro
Reuters
July 8, 2009


WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama renewed his support for a government-run health insurance plan on Tuesday after a top aide indicated the White House might be willing to back a healthcare overhaul that did not include the option.

In a statement released while traveling in Russia, Obama strongly endorsed the idea of a public plan and said it was one of the best ways to bring down costs and "force the insurance companies to compete and keep them honest."

The option, supported by many Democrats, has drawn sharp opposition from Republicans in Congress, who say it could hurt insurance companies and displace the traditional employer-based insurance model.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was quoted in The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday as saying the administration wanted to create competition for insurers, but the mechanism was negotiable.

Emanuel said another option would be to use the public plan only if the marketplace failed to provide enough competition, similar to a "trigger mechanism" included by Republicans in a prescription-drug plan for Medicare in 2003 but never used.

The comments sparked concern among healthcare reform advocates and many Democrats who support the public option and want it included in a mammoth overhaul of the U.S. healthcare system being hammered out in Congress.

Emanuel went to the Capitol Hill later on Tuesday to discuss healthcare with fellow Democrats in the House of Representatives.

Without mentioning what he told The Wall Street Journal, Emanuel repeatedly cited Obama's support for the public option, aides and lawmakers said.

TELL PEOPLE HOW MUCH IT WILL COST

Democratic Representative David Scott said afterward Obama and Congress must tell the American people how much a healthcare overhaul would cost and who would pay for it.

"That's the big question here, and the quicker we can get the American people to buy into this, the smoother the road is going to be," Scott said.

The price tag is estimated at $1 trillion or more, and Democratic lawmakers are trying to trim costs and broaden the plan's appeal to make it more palatable and potentially win bipartisan support.

Obama's top legislative priority has made unsteady progress as lawmakers struggle to meld five separate bills into versions that can pass the Senate and House by the August 8 start of a month long recess.

"I am pleased by the progress we're making on healthcare reform," Obama said, "and still believe, as I've said before, that one of the best ways to bring down costs, provide more choices, and assure quality is a public option that will force the insurance companies to compete and keep them honest."

Shares of health insurers were up as much as 8 percent at midday on the possible shift in the administration's stance on a public plan, then they gave up some of their gains.

Shares of Aetna Inc and UnitedHealth Group Inc closed 6.3 percent and 4.5 percent higher respectively, while shares of Humana Inc closed more than 3.3 percent higher and WellPoint Inc 2.4 percent.

TAXING HEALTH BENEFITS

Senator Kent Conrad, a Democratic member of the Senate Finance Committee, said negotiators had been looking at taxing some employer provided benefits to help finance the overhaul. Currently that benefit is tax-free, and panel members were considering capping that tax exclusion.

But Conrad said new polling data shows that taxing health benefits is unpopular, with about 70 percent of people opposed to the idea. "The exclusion issue is especially difficult. If you go to the public and ask them what they think, they don't like it," Conrad said.

Three major hospital associations have offered to contribute about $155 billion over 10 years to help pay for the healthcare overhaul, The Washington Post reported, citing industry sources.

Two weeks ago, the pharmaceutical industry offered some $80 billion in prescription discounts over the next decade to help defray the cost of healthcare reform proposals.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said healthcare reform must be paid for without adding to the U.S. deficit, and "all options ought to be on the table," including tax increases.

The tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee met to discuss how to pay for any reform. Among the options being considered is a surtax on individuals making more than $250,000 a year, according to people close to the talks.

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