PHOENIX (Reuters) - Including a government-run insurance option in a U.S. healthcare bill has split lawmakers in the Democrat-controlled U.S. Congress, but support for it remains broad on the streets of U.S. cities, voters and pollsters say.
On Monday, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid included a “public” option in the Senate’s bill as the best way to lower costs and create competition.
“When you have no competition, the prices keep going up and up ... the public option is going to force them to change, to bring down their prices -- hopefully,” said Phoenix mobile home salesman Bill Zaffer, 61, who backed the measure.
Opponents argue that a public option would hurt competition because the government program would have a cost advantage by virtue of a huge member base, but supporters of the public option say there is no real competition without it.
Inclusion of a public option has become one of the most contentious issues in the debate on healthcare reform -- President Barack Obama’s top domestic priority, which seeks to cut costs, improve care and regulate insurers.
Democrats said Reid was still short of the 60 votes needed to overcome procedural hurdles and pass a bill with a public option. Republicans are against the measure, which they say amounts to a government takeover of healthcare which would hurt the private insurance industry.
But several polls in recent weeks show support for the option running at between 50 and 61 percent among Americans. Among backers is yoga instructor Suzanne Brownlow, from Atlanta.
“It’s almost impossible to get insurance. A public option would present me with an opportunity,” said Brownlow, 48, who has repeatedly been denied coverage since having a seizure eight years ago, and has been without coverage for year.
In Los Angeles, meanwhile, attorney Gary Minevich, 33, who is among some 46 million people in the United States without coverage, said he supported “nationalized” health care.
“I haven’t had health care in like seven years and I think that if he had passed this a long time ago I’d have been able to see a doctor,” he said.
But Broc Tooher, 20, was among a minority of Americans who dislike a government-run insurance option, which he felt would impose uniformity.
“Insurance should be provided on what you want, and not just all be the same,” said Tooher, an operating room assistant in Scottsdale, Ariz. “I think it’s a bad idea.”
A USA Today/Gallup poll released last week found 50 percent backed a public option and 46 percent opposed it, while a CNN poll found 61 percent supported an insurance option administered by the government and 38 percent opposed.
While the numbers vary, researchers said they are representative of backing for a government insurance option among Americans. Underlying the support are such factors as difficulty obtaining coverage and the cost of medical care.
“You’re essentially getting a gut level response to what is a very complex issue, but I think it represents the public view,” said Carroll Doherty of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.
“You see it across a lot of polls with different wording, that there is support for this approach.”
Nevertheless, one Pew poll last month found that 67 percent of respondents found the healthcare debate difficult to understand -- a complaint common among Americans struggling to make sense of the four lengthy, jargon-ridden versions of healthcare legislation currently in Congress.
“I definitely need more information and I need to have it in a form we can understand,” said Theresa Frombes, a 51-year-old occupational therapist from Illinois, who was “for some (of the bill) but not all of it.”
In Phoenix, part-time potter Tim Denne, meanwhile, said he had difficulty reaching an informed view on the healthcare legislation, the Senate version of which alone runs to more than 1,500 pages.
“You could get a doctorate in just studying that bill ... it’s that thick,” he said indicating the breadth of a phone book with his thumb and index finger as he stood at a filling station.
“People can say whether they support it or not, but they can’t really be in a firm or valid opinion,” he added.
Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles, Carey Gillam in Kansas City; editing by Cynthia Osterman