October 20, 2009 / 7:44 PM / 10 years ago

U.S. public health option gathers steam

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Momentum is growing in the U.S. Congress for healthcare reform to include a government-run insurance option, but Senate Democrats are still short of votes needed to pass such a measure, a top Democrat said on Tuesday.

U.S. Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, speaks during the 2009 Reuters Washington Summit in Washington, October 20, 2009. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Democrats in the Senate need 60 votes to pass the bill.

“I’m told ... they have 53 to 54 votes in support of a public option in the Senate,” Representative Chris Van Hollen, a member of the Democratic leadership, said at the Reuters Washington Summit.

Van Hollen predicted a government-run health insurance plan, which would offer consumers a nonprofit alternative to private health insurance companies, would be included in the final health reform bill from Congress.

The Maryland Democrat’s comments follow a Washington Post-ABC News poll on Monday that showed 57 percent of Americans support a government alternative. As many as 76 percent backed such a plan as long as it was limited to those who could not afford private plans, according to the poll of roughly 1,000 people.

Health insurance firms strongly oppose a public plan, saying if would create an unfair playing field and drive some insurers out of business. Republicans, some businesses and other groups also oppose it.

President Barack Obama has made passing legislation that expands health insurance and curb costs his top domestic priority this year.

All three bills in the U.S. House of Representatives and one of two Senate bills call for some sort of nonprofit health insurance program overseen by the federal government.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Tuesday new estimates from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) showed each of the three House proposals would reduce the U.S. budget deficit over 10 years and cost less than $900 billion.

“The preliminary estimates we’ve seen from the CBO enable us to make our choices knowing that whatever choice we make will reduce the deficit and will pay for the bill,” said Pelosi, who did not release the estimates.

The three bills passed this year were above $1 trillion in cost. Pelosi said Democratic leaders would not bring forward a bill that did not meet Obama’s goal of $900 billion. She has repeatedly said the final House bill will include a strong government-run health insurance option.

The Senate Finance Committee’s bill, viewed as a leading proposal, does not contain a public option, which Obama says is needed to ensure price competition. Instead it allows for nonprofit private cooperatives, which proponents say would meet Obama’s goal of providing competition to private firms.

Democratic leaders are melding the bills to come up with a final proposal for each chamber to vote on before negotiating on one final congressional bill to present to Obama.

“I believe that there’s going to be enough energy and support that some form of the public option will pass,” Van Hollen said, adding that a bill was still on track to pass this year. “I think we’re getting near the end.”

PUBLIC OPTIONS

Analyst Ethan Siegal saw little appetite for a government option that reimbursed doctors at the same low rates as the Medicare insurance program for the elderly, or one that negotiated directly with providers over costs.

Instead, variations of the option — such as one “triggered” by certain circumstances, or state-run public insurance plans rather than a federal one — are more palatable, said Siegal, whose company, The Washington Exchange, follows the health debate and other issues for investors.

“Some combination of those are likely to be in the final bill,” he told the Reuters Washington Summit, adding that passage is likely this year, although it could be early 2010 before Obama actually signs a reform bill into law.

If a public option is included, the bill won’t get the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s support, the group’s top lobbyist said.

“We will oppose it,” said Bruce Josten, executive vice president for government affairs for the chamber, which claims to be the world’s biggest business federation.

Aside from the public option, Van Hollen said House Democratic leaders are still working through how to ensure that no public dollars are used to fund abortion.

(Editing by Andrew Hay)

Additional reporting by Tom Ferraro

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