In Saturday’s radio address, President Obama condemned the insurance industry for “filling the airwaves with deceptive and dishonest ads” and “flooding Capitol Hill with lobbyists and campaign contributions” “designed to mislead the American people.” Obama called out the industry for “making this last-ditch effort to stop reform” and criticized cable news and so-called experts for buying into the latest false industry reports. “It’s smoke and mirrors. It’s bogus. And it’s all too familiar,” he said.
But that’s where the fiery speech ended. Obama’s response to the insurance industry reports provided him the perfect opportunity to press for a public option, only he let the moment slip. The address was long on rhetoric but short on policies that could keep the industry in check. Obama sanctioned Democratic efforts to remove the industry’s anti-trust exemption, but fell short of endorsing a robust public option that could lower health care costs, lower the costs of the bill, and keep insurance companies accountable. The following day, White House Officials took to the airwaves to explain that the administration would not demand a public plan. In fact, despite the Democrats’ super majority in Congress, and the overwhelming support of the American people, the administration wouldn’t be demanding much of anything:
- Valarie Jarrett: He’s not demanding that it’s in there. He thinks it’s the best possible choice. But I think, David, let’s not underestimate how much progress we’ve made. [MTP, 10/18/2009]
- David Axelrod: I think the final bill will achieve those goals, and a public option would help in that regard….There will be compromise. There will be legislation, and it will achieve our goals.” [This Week, 10/18/2009]
- Rahm Emanuel: And so the president believes in it as a source of competition. He also believes that it’s not the defining piece of health care. It’s whether we achieve both cost control, coverage, as well as the choice that…The president of the United States will obviously weigh in when it’s important to weigh in on that. [State of The Union, 10/18/2009]
The address was a missed opportunity. Obama could have responded to the industry’s self-serving report by arguing that reform must inject significant competition into health insurance markets. He could have used their new-found tone to argue that reform must hold the industry accountable. The American people, in other words, should not be compelled to buy private coverage from an industry that has just admitted that it would increase premiums by some 111% if reform passes.
But rest assured that Obama still believes the public option is “the best possible choice” to restore competition and improve affordability. He just refuses to fight for it. Why? The public option is not a liberal ideological baton, it’s a sensible compromise that builds on free market principles. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the option would attract some 10-15 million new applicants, hardly a threat to private insurers who have spent years building brand loyalty and today boast hundreds of millions of applicants. It would add a sliver of competition into the market — and, judging by the industry’s reaction, that’s threatening enough. It would save the government some $150 billion dollars, lower the cost of the bill, lower premiums by some 10%, and help bring about the kind of delivery system reforms that could lower the rate of growth in health care spending.
What’s more, 77% of the American people and the majority of Democrats in the House and Senate support it. So why not pressure reluctant Democrats to support the policy? Why not push Reid on the option? What does the White House have to lose?
The President may not have the votes for a public plan today, but he’ll never get them if he doesn’t publicly pressure the Congress to stand up to the health insurance industry and help make insurance more affordable for millions of Americans.