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The Phantom of the Option

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The public option, we hear, is about to take earthly form. While congressional leaders working to combine five health care reform bills will determine its final shape, a government-run health plan to compete with the private offerings will almost surely become reality. And the specter of a populist uprising against it will haunt centrist Democrats no more.

It's been quite an ordeal. Several Democrats from fairly conservative parts of the country have been held captive by tales of widespread anger against what is merely a sensible means for containing health care costs.

Republicans have filled their heads with ghost stories about the public option. Largely written by the insurers, these yarns are designed to scare enough Democratic senators into killing the concept. Though a majority, Democrats need 60 votes in the Senate to ensure that legislation including a public option goes forward.

Here's what Americans really think about the public option: Nearly two-thirds favor it, according to a recent New York Times/CBS poll. The survey also found that people believe President Obama has better ideas for fixing health care than do Republicans -- and by a margin of 52 percent to 27 percent.

Given those poll numbers, the few Democrats wavering over a public option might ask themselves which side they ought to land on. Put differently, what in the name of Beelzebub would possess them to back Republicans on this, unless they, too, are creatures of the insurance industry?

Nonetheless, some Democrats are twisting themselves in a bizarre political dance to convince folks back home that they are fighting the phantom of "socialized medicine." It is Danse Macabre, to be sure. (Strike up that creepy violin, Saint-Saens.)

Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, simply won't stop. "I am pressing to get a government-run, taxpayer-supported public option out of the bill," she said. Landrieu might be interested to learn that the government-run option would not be any more taxpayer-supported than the private ones. Taxpayer subsidies could be equally applied to buying into a private plan or the public version.

An idea for appeasing on-the-fence "moderates" involves letting states opt out of participating in the public option. One can't imagine any state's lawmakers choosing to do that. If they did, the voters would rapidly replace them.

In any event, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, has included the opt-out clause in the bill. He'll do whatever it takes to calm a few phantom-obsessed Democrats.

Consider Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, another Democrat who persists in voicing his unhappiness with even that compromise. He's "not excited" about a public option that the states could opt out of. Rather, he wants to require states to opt in. (Go ahead, if that makes him feel better.)

Some Democrats say they want to consider a "trigger mechanism," as proposed by Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe. The sole Republican publicly open to a government-run plan, Snowe has suggested a trick whereby the option would appear only if private insurers don't offer enough "affordable" coverage.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, offers kind words about both roundabout ways for enabling a public option. "I think we end up with some opportunity to go to some kind of nonprofit," she said on Sunday. You can get from Chicago to Los Angeles by changing planes in Hawaii.

Well, I've been going on and on and on and on about this public-option business for months. The least pleasant part has been countering the rumors of torch-bearing masses defending the honor of the private insurers.

But it will soon be over. I now hear the cock crowing with the dawn. Let us toll the bell for the phantom of the option.

COPYRIGHT 2009 THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL CO.

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Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.

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