Did Lieberman Kill The Public Option?

As support for a government-run insurance plan reaches an all time high, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) today moved closer to stripping the public plan from the merged Senate legislation.

Citing concerns that the public option would create “trouble for the taxpayers, for the premium payers and for the national debt,” Lieberman said that he was “inclined” to vote to allow health care reform legislation to be debated on the Senate floor, but would “vote against cloture” if “the bill stays as it is now.” TPMDC has Lieberman’s comments:

“I told Senator Reid that I’m strongly inclined — I haven’t totally decided, but I’m strongly inclined — to vote to proceed to the health care debate, even though I don’t support the bill that he’s bringing together because it’s important that we start the debate on health care reform because I want to vote for health care reform this year. But I also told him that if the bill remains what it is now, I will not be able to support a cloture motion before final passage. Therefore I will try to stop the passage of the bill.“

Contrary to Lieberman’s claims, the public option envisioned by Reid would be required to compete on a level playing field with private insurers and charge premiums “in an amount sufficient to cover expected costs.” Instead of increasing the national debt, the Congressional Budget Office concluded that the self-sustaining public option (similar to the one envisioned by Reid) could actually save the government money and slightly lower premiums.


But Lieberman isn’t interested in the policy details. Earlier this month, the senator registered his opposition to the Baucus bill, which did not contain a public option. During today’s conference call, Lieberman opened the door to supporting a plan “set up and run by the states,” giving Reid breathing room to introduce an amendment that would fund state-based public plans.

In fact, given the public’s strong support for the option and Reid’s decision to include the plan in the bill, the final Senate legislation will likely include some kind of public option provision. That proposal could mirror The New America Foundations’ proposal to establish a series of independent public options based on already existing state-employer health plans (currently offered in 30 states). The federal government would offer states start-up funds to establish a program that would compete on a level playing field.The public plan would have to be actuarially sound, would not leverage Medicare to force providers to participate or use Medicare payment rates, and would likely adhere to the same rules regarding reserve funds. Patients who are weary of private providers would likely enroll in the public plan.

Responding to Lieberman’s statement during his weekly press conference, Reid said, “Joe Lieberman is the least of Harry Reid’s Problem.”

Lieberman’s opposition may also influence negotiations in the House, where moderate to conservative House Democrats may now abandon their wavering support for a (robust) national public plan (after all, if it won’t be law, why vote for it?).