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Health care shift attracts few new supporters

University of Colorado student Zach Lahn asks President Barack Obama a pointed question about how private insurance companies could compete with a government option, during a town hall meeting Saturday in Grand Junction, Colo. The event was part of the president’s swing through three western states.

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University of Colorado student Zach Lahn asks President Barack Obama a pointed question about how private insurance companies could compete with a government option, during a town hall meeting Saturday in Grand Junction, Colo. The event was part of the president’s swing through three western states.

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's weekend concession on a health care "government option" drew complaints from liberals, nods from some conservative Democrats and scant interest from Republicans on Monday.

The White House insisted there had been no shift in position, adding the president still favors a federal option for the sale of health insurance. "The bottom line is this: Nothing has changed," said a memo containing suggested answers for administration allies to use if asked about the issue.

Concerned that the president might be ready to negotiate away one of their key goals, liberal Democrats pressed President Barack Obama on Monday to resist conservative opposition and maintain support for a government insurance option as part of his health care overhaul.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the proposal to make government insurance available to many Americans "the best option to lower costs, improve the quality of health care, ensure choice and expand coverage."

She stressed that the House of Representatives is solidly behind the idea of a government insurance program, strongly suggesting that any new plan without such a program would have a hard time passing.

Her remarks were echoed by lawmakers as well as AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, who said the option was the only way to force "real competition" on the insurance industry.

But some political gain for Obama was clear Monday in the reaction of Rep. Rick Boucher of Virginia, one of five Democrats who opposed the bill when it cleared the House Energy and Commerce Committee in July.

Boucher said Obama's willingness to compromise on the public option had strengthened the president's hand among conservative Democrats and other skeptics without harming the basic goal of lowering health care costs and insuring more people.

Families USA president Ron Pollack, who has been pushing health care overhaul for decades, and other consumer advocates noted that the bills working their way through the House and Senate included provisions that would transform the way Americans get health insurance — even without a government plan.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky remained critical of Obama's proposals.

"While both political parties believe we need to reform our health care system, particularly in the areas of cost and access, Americans are rightly skeptical about the administration's approach to overhauling everyone's health care and about the more than $1 trillion price tag. Moreover, Americans are concerned about funding new government programs through massive cuts to Medicare and taxes on small business," he said.

Liberal Democrats' concerns came after a weekend in which Obama appeared to open the door to dropping the controversial proposal if necessary to win more votes in Congress from legislators at the political center.

Obama told a town hall meeting that the proposal was "just a sliver" of an overhaul. "Whether we have it or we don't have it," he said, it's "not the entirety of health care reform."

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius also said Sunday that government insurance was "not the essential element" of an overhaul, and that one Senate proposal to create nonprofit cooperatives could be an alternative way of competing with insurance companies to drive down costs.

Monday afternoon, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the comments by the president and his staff were misunderstood. Obama, he said, still preferred a public option but has always been open to alternatives.

Many Democrats want to create a federal government health-insurance program and make it available as an option to small business and to Americans who earn up to $43,000 annually and families of four that make $88,000.

Supporters see it as a way of competing with private insurance companies to drive down costs, but critics say that a government program would have an unfair advantage because it wouldn't have to make a profit.

60,000 quit AARP

About 60,000 members have quit the AARP since July 1 because of the group's support for a health care overhaul, spokesman Drew Nannis said Monday. Nannis said it wasn't unusual for the powerful, 40 million-strong senior citizens' lobby to shed members in droves when it's advocating on a controversial issue. The AARP is strongly backing a health care overhaul, but the group has not endorsed a specific bill and says it won't support a plan that reduces Medicare benefits.

Associated Press

Health care shift attracts few new supporters 08/18/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 18, 2009 12:52am]

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