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Senate Panel Rejects Public Health Option

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

From Congress today, a strong signal of the steep uphill battle that the public option on health insurance faces. Senators on the Finance Committee defeated attempts to add the government-run insurance option to health care legislation. That's despite the fact that it has widespread public support beyond Capitol Hill.

As NPR's David Welna reports, Republicans solidly oppose a public option and Democrats are divided.

DAVID WELNA: West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller presented his plan for a public option to the Senate Finance panel with the argument that private health insurers put profits first and customers second. Big insurance companies, he said, have little competition in many parts of the country and a public option would change that.

Senator JAY ROCKEFELLER (Democrat, West Virginia): If we don't do it, what we're doing is saying, go ahead, health insurance companies, and make more profits. That's the resolve. And we're saying that somehow people and their problems, which those are the folks who elect us and they're having a lot of problems with health insurance, that they somehow don't count as much.

WELNA: Washington state Democrat Maria Cantwell pointed out that polls show broad support for a public option and rejection of a private insurance system that over the past decade has simply become unsustainable.

Senator MARIA CANTWELL (Democrat, Washington): Wages have only gone up 29 percent. The insurance premiums have gone up 120 percent. And we've seen insurance profits go up 428 percent.

WELNA: The panel's top Republican, Iowa's Chuck Grassley, would not be swayed.

Senator CHUCK GRASSLEY (Republican, Iowa): I oppose the amendment because I think it is a slow walk towards government-controlled, single-payer health care.

WELNA: New York Democrat Charles Schumer pounced on Grassley's anti-government rhetoric.

Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): I'd just like to know what you think of Medicare, a government-run program that's far more government run than what Senator Rockefeller has proposed. Do you think Medicare is a good program?

WELNA: Grassley replied he thinks Medicare is part of the nation's social fabric like Social Security.

Sen. GRASSLEY: To say that I support it is not to say that it's the best system that it can be.

Sen. SCHUMER: But it is a government-run plan, isn't that right?

Sen. GRASSLEY: It is a government-run plan.

Sen. SCHUMER: Thank you.

WELNA: But it was clear some Democrats on the panel were also balking at a public option. One of them was North Dakota's Kent Conrad.

Senator KENT CONRAD (Democrat, North Dakota): Every major hospital administrator in my state has told me, if you tie public option to Medicare levels of reimbursement, which the Rockefeller amendment does for two years, every hospital in my state, every major hospital goes broke.

WELNA: And committee chairman Max Baucus said what he needed was to produce a health care bill that could get 60 votes in the full Senate and thus avert a filibuster.

Senator MAX BAUCUS (Democrat, Montana): Now, I can count and no one has able to show me how they can count up to 60 votes with a public option in the bill. And thus I've been strained to vote against the (unintelligible).

WELNA: In the end, five committee Democrats, three from states President Obama lost last November, opposed Rockefeller's public option amendment, as did every Republican. A more market friendly version of the public option offered by New York's Schumer got two more votes from Democrats, but it too was defeated. Still, with the House planning to include a public option in its bill, Democrats are hoping the full Senate will do so as well. Many are now looking to Mr. Obama to lead their fight for a public option.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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