Public Option Debate in the Senate Finance Committee

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Although the prospects of a public option finding its way into the Senate Finance Committee health reform bill are bleak, Chairman Max Baucus seems ready to devote the bulk of today’s markup to the topic.

The committee spent most of its morning session rehashing the arguments for and against the creation of a public health insurance plan. Senators Jay Rockefeller and Charles Schumer – who have both proposed amendments that would add a public option to the Baucus bill – say it’s the only way to inject competition into the health insurance market and bring down costs. Republicans who oppose a public option say it’s a Trojan horse for a single-payer system in which all private insurers would be driven out of business. These arguments have written about here, here and here.

But in between rehashing the public option debate this morning, there were some moments worth noting:

Rockefeller’s passionate argument for the public option. He has been the committee member most adamant about its inclusion in the bill, even hinting he may vote against a bill with no public option. The Baucus bill, said Rockefeller, is a giveaway to private insurers. “We’re saying to people – those are the people who elect us – that they somehow don’t count…That people come second and profits come first…We know from experience, insurance companies often exploit loopholes…They’re very good at it…They get away with as much as they can get away with because nobody’s looking.” Rockefeller said his amendment promotes competition in the marketplace and is therefore “a Republican amendment…a free market amendment.”

Schumer and Grassley’s war of words Schumer managed to rattle Ranking Member Chuck Grassley, as the latter was explaining why he thinks a government-run insurance plan will lead to a government “takeover” of health care. “I’d just like to know what you think of Medicare, a government run plan that’s far more government run than what Senator Rockefeller is proposing,” asked Schumer. Grassley’s response was that “Medicare is part of the social fabric of America.” The two senators went back and forth several times before Grassley began to stammer, eventually saying, “If you want competition, you don’t want the government running anything…government is not a competitor, it’s a predator.”

Ensign connecting gun control and public transportation to health care After Democrat Kent Conrad, who supports a non-profit cooperative health insurance plan instead of a true public option, showed a chart that puts the U.S. 19th in the world in “preventable deaths,” Republican John Ensign said the numbers were skewed. He pointed out that if automobile and gun deaths were eliminated from the data, the U.S. would rank much higher. Calling these “cultural differences,” Ensign said “in this country, we like our guns” and “we are a more mobile society” who drives more and uses public transportation less than Europe. He then presented a chart showing the U.S. far ahead of Great Britain and Europe in 5-year cancer survival rates, prompting Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow to point out that other individual European countries rank higher than the U.S. in that metric.

Snowe’s silence Republican, and possible swing vote, Olympia Snowe has not said anything yet today on the subject of a public option. She has proposed an amendment, yet to be debated, that would “trigger” a public option if affordable plans and competition in the private insurance market does not materialize.

UPDATE: The Senate Finance Committee voted down Rockefeller’s public option amendment, 15 to 8. All Republicans, plus Democrats Kent Conrad, Blanche Lincoln, Bill Nelson and Chairman Max Baucus voted against it. UPDATE: Democrat Thomas Carper also voted against the amendment.

SECOND UPDATE: The committee also voted down Schumer’s public option amendment, 13 to 10. All Republicans, plus Conrad, Lincoln and Baucus voted against it.