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* Health secretary says government-run plan not essential
* Obama seeking choice and competition in insurance
By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON, Aug 16 The government-run health
insurance option favored by President Barack Obama is not
essential to a healthcare overhaul as long as the final measure
boosts competition, a top U.S. health official said on Sunday.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said
a public insurance option was "not the essential element" of
any overhaul, and non-profit cooperatives being considered by a
Senate panel could also fulfill the White House goal of
creating more competition on insurance.
"I think what's important is choice and competition, and
I'm convinced that at the end of the day the plan will have
both of those -- but that is not the essential element," she
said of the government-run insurance option on CNN's "State of
the Union" show.
"The president is just continuing to say let's not have
this be the only focus of the conversation," Sebelius said.
Democratic proposals in Congress for a government-run
insurance option have sparked intense opposition from
Republicans who argue it would unfairly compete with private
plans and would cripple the insurance industry.
The government option has become a key focus of opposition
charges that the overhaul, Obama's top domestic priority, would
amount to a government takeover of healthcare.
Six members of the Senate Finance Committee -- three from
each party -- have been negotiating a reform package that would
feature member-controlled non-profit cooperatives instead of
the government-run plan.
"I think there will be a competitor to private insurers,"
Sebelius said. "That's really the essential part, is you don't
turn over the whole new marketplace to private insurance
companies and trust them to do the right thing."
'BOTTOM LINE' CONCERNS
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs avoided a direct
response when asked if the exclusion of a government-run option
would be a deal-breaker for Obama.
"The president believes the option of a government plan is
the best way to provide competition," he said on CBS's "Face
the Nation," but he added the White House looked forward to the
Finance Committee's ideas.
"The bottom line again is do individuals looking for health
insurance in the private market have choice and competition?"
Gibbs said. "If we have that the president will be satisfied."
Obama has pushed a healthcare overhaul that he says would
rein in costs, improve care and extend coverage to most of the
46 million uninsured Americans, but the measure has run into
stiff opposition from Republican and conservative groups and
some elements of the healthcare industry.
Lawmakers at home for the August recess have faced vocal
and sometimes disruptive critics at healthcare information
sessions. The controversy has driven down Obama's approval
ratings and possibly jeopardized passage of the healthcare
legislation when Congress returns in September.
Obama has intensified his public lobbying for the measure,
and held three public "town hall" meetings on healthcare last
week to counter the criticism.
In a New York Times opinion piece on Sunday, Obama said
"for all the scare tactics out there, what's truly scary --
truly risky -- is the prospect of doing nothing."
Republican Senator Richard Shelby, a sharp critic of the
administration's healthcare reform effort, said a public
cooperative option would be "a step in the right direction."
"I think the Democratic administration -- President Obama
and his Cabinet -- have read the tea leaves of America right
now," he said on "Fox News Sunday."
Democratic Senator Kent Conrad, a member of the so-called
"Gang of Six" negotiators on the Finance Committee, said the
cooperative model could attract Republican support.
Conrad has argued Democrats do not have enough votes to
pass a healthcare overhaul without Republican support, even
though Democrats control Congress.
"Co-ops are very prevalent in our society. They have been a
very successful business model," Conrad said. "It is the only
plan that has bipartisan support in the United States Senate."
(Additional reporting by Eric Beech and Paul Simao; Editing
by Paul Simao; Washington newsroom, 202-898-8300)