Bob Franken

The Public Option: Is it Abandoned or Not?


There are few places more precarious than where you stand after being sent to launch a trial balloon — when there’s flak all around and those whose idea it was could pull the rug out from under you. Just ask Health and Human Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who an Obama administration official is now saying “misspoke” when she gave the very broad hint Sunday that the “public option” for health care reform might be abandoned.

“Misspoke” has become a favorite word in this administration. This time THE “M-word” being used to quell an uproar created when Sebelius said on CNN that a government-run insurance option is “not the essential element” of health care reform. She suggested the so-called insurance “co-op” idea may be preferable.

She’s not the only one who is apparently wavering in the face of scathing criticism that President Obama is leading a government takeover of the medical system. The president himself seems to be going back and forth. At his town-hall meeting in Colorado on Saturday night he said, “The public option, whether we have it or don’t have it, is not the entirety of health care reform.”

Don’t look for anybody at the White House to say he misspoke, even though, to many on the left, his comment was not a signal but a capitulation. Now, like the protesters on the right, they’re the ones screaming bloody murder. Howard Dean, one of their champions and no stranger to high volume, argued on CBS: “I don’t think it can pass without the public option.”

However, another Democrat argued from the middle that reform can’t pass with it. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad insisted on “Fox News Sunday”: “The fact of the matter is there are not the votes in the United States Senate for the public option.”

Conrad is the author of the co-op idea. Liberal critics dismiss the approach as too weak a response to insurance companies that need robust competition to force them out of their abusive practices. Anything short of a public option will be inadequate.

It’s still early in the game, but clearly the president is already trying to have it both ways as he tip-toes into an area where both sides have chosen to stomp. This latest uproar demonstrates how difficult it is for Obama to walk that fine line without falling — and taking health care reform down with him. To say nothing of bruising the feelings of those, like Secretary Sebelius, he sent out on a limb before sawing it off.

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