The Public Option Lives On

Today is a critical day in the saga of the public option. Democrats Charles
Schumer (New York) and Jay Rockefeller (West Virginia) are introducing
an amendment to include the public option in the bill to be reported
out by the Senate Finance Committee -- the committee anointed by the
White House as its favored vehicle for getting health care reform.

you read another word, call and email the Senate offices of Democrats
Max Baucus (Montana), Tom Carper (Delaware), Robert Menendez (New
Jersey), Kent Conrad (North Dakota), Jeff Bingaman (New Mexico), John
Kerry (MA), Blanche Lincoln (Arkansas), Ron Wyden (Oregon), Debbie
Stabenow (Michigan), Maria Cantwell (Washington),
and Bill Nelson (Florida) -- telling them you want them to vote in
favor of the public option amendment. And get everyone you know in
these states to do the same. Hell, you might as well phone and email
Republican Olympia Snowe (Maine) and make the same pitch.

Every dollar squeezed out of Big Pharma and Big Insurance is a dollar
less that you'll have to pay either in healthcare costs or in taxes to
cover healthcare costs. The two most direct ways to squeeze future
profits are allowing Medicare to use its huge bargaining leverage to
negotiate lower drug prices, and creating a public insurance option to
compete with private insurers and also use its bargaining clout to get
lower prices and thereby push private insurers to offer lower rates.

last January, the White House made a Faustian bargain with Big Pharma
and Big Insurance, essentially scuttling both of these profit-squeezing
mechanisms in return for these industries' agreement not to oppose
healthcare legislation with platoons of lobbyists and millions of
dollars of TV ads, and Pharma's willingness to cut drug prices by some
$80 billion over the next ten years. The White House promised these
industries they'd come out way ahead -- getting tens of millions of new
customers who'd be buying private health insurance policies and thereby
paying for an almost endless supply of new drugs. Healthcare reform
would be, in short, a bonanza.

Big Pharma and Big Insurance have
so far delivered on their side of the deal. In fact, Big Pharma has
shelled out $120 million in advertisements in favor of reform. Now the
White House is delivering on its side.

Last Thursday, for
example, the Senate Finance Committee rejected Ben Nelson's amendment
to require Big Pharma to give some $160 billion in discounts to
Medicare -- thereby reducing the bonanza Pharma would reap from the
healthcare bill. Not surprisingly, all Republicans voted against the
amendment. But it was defeated only because Dems Baucus, Carper, and
Menendez voted with the Republicans.

Carper later explained to the New York Times
why he voted with the Republicans. The amendment, he said, would
"undermine our ability to pass" health care reform, because the White
House had made a deal with Big Pharma by which the industry wouldn't
oppose healthcare reform -- and White House officials had told him "a
deal is a deal." The Times described the vote as a "big victory" for the White House.

voted for the amendment. He said he was "not at the table" when the
White House and Big Pharma made their deal so didn't feel bound by it.
But even if he had been at the table, he wouldn't be bound. No member
of the Senate is bound to a deal made between industry and the White
House. Congress is a separate branch of government.

Big Pharma
and big insurance hate the public insurance option even more than they
hate big Medicare discounts. And although the President has sounded as
if he would welcome it, political operatives in the White House have
quietly reassured the industries that it won't be included in the final
bill. At most, the bill would allow the formation of non-profit
"cooperatives" that wouldn't have the scale or authority to squeeze the
profits of private industry, or a "trigger" that would allow states to
form public insurance options eventually if certain goals for cost
savings and coverage weren't met.

But the public option lives
on, nonetheless. It's still in the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and
Pension bill. It still headlines the House bills, and Speaker Nancy
Pelosi says she's still committed to it. The latest Times/CBS poll
shows 65 percent of the public in favor of it.

Now, Schumer and
Rockefeller are introducing a public option amendment in the Senate
Finance Committee. Carper, Menendez, Baucus, and other Dems on the
Committee should vote for it, or be forced to pay a price if they don't.

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