WASHINGTON – President Obama’s major concession on a health care “government option’’ drew complaints from liberals and scarce interest from Republicans and other critics yesterday, a fresh sign of the challenge in finding middle ground in an increasingly partisan political struggle.
“You really can’t do health reform’’ without allowing the government to compete with private insurers, said Howard Dean, a former Democratic Party chairman. “Let’s not say we’re doing health reform without a public option,’’ the former Vermont governor added on another morning TV news show.
Obama and his top aides signaled retreat over the weekend on proposals for a provision under which consumers could choose from health insurance policies sold by the federal government as well as those marketed by private companies. Yesterday, however, the White House insisted that there had been no shift in position, and that Obama’s preference was still a public option.
The government option has emerged as one of the most contentious elements of legislation taking shape in Congress, with critics saying it is a step toward a federal takeover of health care and supporters arguing it is essential to create competition with private firms.
Proposals for creation of nonprofit cooperative ventures have emerged as an alternative, but neither liberals nor conservatives have shown great interest. The co-ops would assemble networks of health care providers and negotiate payment rates with them. The government would provide up to $6 billion to get them started.
Obama is trying to regain momentum for a health care overhaul that has generated controversy among Democrats and near unanimous opposition among Republicans. Recent polls show a lessening of support, and the administration and its allies were thrown on the defensive earlier this month when angry protesters turned up at widely publicized town hall events held by Democratic lawmakers.
The bill faces numerous obstacles when lawmakers return to the Capitol after Labor Day.
Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, said the Nevada lawmaker “supports a public option’’ because it could keep insurance companies in check. “But he also knows that 60 votes will be needed to get anything done.’’
Liberals in and out of Congress were careful not to criticize Obama directly, but they made clear their unhappiness with his latest move.
“Leaving private insurance companies the job of controlling the costs of health care is like making a pyromaniac the fire chief,’’ said Representative Anthony Weiner, a New York Democrat who is one of dozens of Democrats who favor creation of a so-called “single payer’’ approach under which the government would take over the health care system. He predicted that the bill won’t pass in the Democratic-controlled House without the public plan.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi quoted Obama’s own words about the need for a public option and said there remains strong support for it in her chamber.
“We agree with the president that a public option will keep insurance companies honest and increase competition,’’ Pelosi said in a statement yesterday. “A public option is the best option to lower costs, improve the quality of health care, ensure choice, and expand coverage.’’
John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation that has been a loyal Obama ally, also said he would “forcefully’’ urge the White House and Senate to keep the public option in the bill.