House liberals insist on strong gov't health plan

Eighty liberal lawmakers, in a letter sent to House Democratic leaders Friday, forcefully demanded a “robust and affordable” new government-run health insurance plan be part of healthcare reform.

Emboldened by President Obama’s declaration this week that he wants a public plan option created by the legislation being drafted by Democrats, the Congressional Progressives Caucus (CPC) aggressively stakes its claim as a player in the healthcare reform debate under way in Congress.

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The tough posture taken by the Democratic Party’s left wing underscores the challenges congressional leaders and the Obama administration have at keeping their own house in order.

In its letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democratic leaders, including the committee chairmen writing the bill, the liberal group rejects any healthcare reform plan that excludes a public plan or, as some centrists have suggested, or includes a public plan that would only be “triggered” if private insurers fail to extend coverage.

The progressive caucus, along with the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus sent similar letters to Democratic congressional leaders and Obama earlier this year.

The liberals’ letter notably comes a day after the Blue Dog Democrats, a group of House centrists, expressed their strong opposition to any public plan unless it “only as a fallback” if the private insurance market does not improve.

The progressive caucus pointedly reminds Pelosi and the other House leaders that many liberals strongly support scrapping the current insurance system and replacing it with a single-payer, government-run health benefits program – and already view the public plan option as a significant compromise.

“As you are aware, the overwhelming majority of CPC Members would prefer a single-payer approach. If a single-payer plan is not enacted, we agree with President Obama that there must be a robust public health insurance option like Medicare offered alongside the private plans,” the lawmakers, led by Reps. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), wrote.

Along with the letter to Pelosi, the liberals outline a set of criteria that the public plan “must” posses, including that it be run out of a single government entity, not be administered by private insurance plans.

Obama has supported the public plan since his campaign – and indeed expressed sympathy for a single-payer program prior to seeking the White House – but was not so specific as the progressive caucus in a letter to two Senate committee chairman this week. Obama reasserted that he wants a public plan in the healthcare bill but did not say what form it should take.

Republicans swiftly reacted to Obama’s actions this week by restating that they cannot vote for any healthcare bill that creates a public plan option. “Our caucus is very, very much against a public option,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). “It’s kind of a litmus test.”