Lawmakers are hard at work trying to keep the ball rolling on health care reform. The next big hurdle is the so-called public option – a government-run insurer to compete with private plans.
There are five proposals on the table right now in both houses of Congress. The one passed on Tuesday by the Senate Finance Committee is the only plan that does not include a public option.
New York Rep. Anthony Weiner is pushing hard for the public option. He spoke to John Roberts on CNN’s “American Morning” Thursday. Below is an edited transcript of that interview.
John Roberts: There are big protests from liberal Democrats and unions over the bill passed by the Senate Finance Committee the other day – the so-called Baucus Bill. Why is it unacceptable to you?
Anthony Weiner: Well, because it fails on a fundamental level, and that is to provide competition and choice for consumers who are looking for health insurance. Look, it's a relatively easy thing to do to provide people subsidies to go buy insurance, but if the insurance companies do what they traditionally have done and what they promise to do in the future, which is keep raising rates, you need to have the public option not only to save money in the bill but to provide true competition.
Roberts: In an interview with New York magazine earlier this week, you said the Baucus Bill is “effectively dead.” What is the basis for that claim?
Weiner: It simply doesn't have the votes to pass in the House of Representatives. I'm not even sure it has the votes to pass in the Senate. I estimate that they might lose as many as 100 votes if they leave out a public option. I recently launched a Web site – countdowntohealthcare.com where I asked people to sign up to put pressure on some of my more moderate colleagues. 30,000 people, many of them from red states, have said that they want a public option. I think it's where the sentiment is going, but it's also where the votes are in the House and I think in the Senate.
Roberts: The next phase of this in the Senate is going to be to try to reconcile the bills that came out of the Senate Finance Committee and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Senator Olympia Snowe from Maine is turning out to be a real power broker in this and she suggested that maybe there's potential for a trigger for a public option. You write legislation that says if the health insurance industry doesn't bring enough uninsured people onto the rolls by a certain time then you go for a public option. Would that be satisfactory to you?
Weiner: There's already effectively a trigger in all of the bills in that none of them go into effect until 2013. We already were put on notice by the health care industry in a report that you covered on your show. The industry says they’re going to raise rates by as much as 111%. They’re crying out for the same thing I'm saying, which is if they don't have competition, nothing will keep them honest. I think that we've had 40 years of a trigger mechanism to see how the health insurance industry is going to deal with things. Every day 17,000 Americans lose insurance because they can't afford it. So we pretty much know what’s going to happen.
Roberts: The criticism is that a public option would undercut private insurance companies and drive some of them out of business as a result of that, because maybe employers or employees or self-employed people would like to go for less expensive health insurance. They will go into the public plan and every year more and more people will get caught up into the public plan until such time as it's the only thing left and everybody’s covered by what would essentially be a single-payer system. What's your argument against those criticisms?
Weiner: Well, let me say two things. First of all, the public option is not nearly as powerful as those critics like to think. Neither you nor I will be able to sign up for the public option because we have health insurance through our workplace. Secondly, I'll say this – it's a strange argument that they’re making. They say don't have competition for us because the competitors might get chosen by consumers. It's true that a public plan is structured like Medicare is with low overhead, no need to get profits or do a lot of advertising. That's what competition is all about. If the health insurance industry says you know what, we’re going to have to reduce our profits and overhead from 30% to maybe 10% – that's exactly where the savings are going to come from.
Roberts: What you said there about how you and I will not be able to get into the public plan under any circumstances because we already have insurance – can you guarantee someone like me or other people who work here at CNN would not get caught up in a public option at some point because perhaps our employer says it's much cheaper than the insurance we have now or our insurer went out of business? Can you guarantee that won't happen?
Weiner: Absolutely not. I can't guarantee that between now and the enactment date of the bill your insurer won't drop you or frankly a lot of people watching the show may lose their insurance. That's what's going on. Every single year insurance rates go up by about $1,000.
Roberts: What I was asking about is if there's a public option out there – I'm not talking about immediately – can you guarantee that more and more people won't get dumped into a public option because their employers decide to go ahead and opt for that?
Weiner: Nobody gets dumped into a public option. No employer can choose the public option. Only an individual can under the bills that are being contemplated and it’s only for the group of those that are uninsured. One thing I can't guarantee you is you’re not going to lose your insurance. People have been losing their insurance at a rate of 17,000 a day because they simply can't afford it. What we’re trying to say is if people find themselves without insurance and they want to shop, they have an option. Not a requirement, an option to choose the public plan. And if people say we can't give that option because it might be less expensive and better quality, that's an argument against competition, and I think we need competition in this bill.
Roberts: I know this is a hypothetical, but if this goes through the entire process, comes out of conference and the final bill does not contain a public option, will you vote against it?
Weiner: Well, that's what I'm asking people to weigh in on at countdowntohealthcare.com. I can tell you something, if it doesn't have something in it that contains costs – and I haven't seen a mechanism besides the public option that does that – I don't see any way that I can vote for it, and I would not be alone. It would not get the votes to carry in the House of Representatives and not only that, it won’t be successful. The bill will not contain costs unless we have it.