By Ian Swanson - 08/16/09 09:22 AM EDT
A public health insurance option took more hits Sunday as Sen. Kent Conrad described its pursuit as a “wasted effort” and an administration official said it is not an “essential” part of reform.
Conrad (D-N.D.), who supports setting up health insurance co-operatives with government seed money to compete with private insurers, described the public option as all but a lost cause.
“So to continue to chase that rabbit is, I think, a wasted effort,” Conrad said.
His comments followed Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’s remark that a public option is “not the essential element” to ensure competition in the health insurance market. Sebelius made the remark on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
A public option is included in legislation moving through the House, and is backed by liberals, who would feel betrayed if it is not a part of a final bill. They see a public insurance plan as critical to ensure that private insurance companies offer coverage and lower costs.
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) told CNN it would be “very difficult” for her and other liberals to support legislation that does not include a public option.
“The only way we can be sure that very low-income people and persons who work for companies that don’t offer insurance have access to it, is through an option that would give the private insurance companies a little competition,” she said.
Johnson added that House liberals have already told Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that she should insist on the White House supporting a public option.
But as reflected by Conrad’s comments, the public option does not have support from Senate Republicans or centrist Democrats trying to reach a bipartisan compromise. Conrad is one of six members of the Senate Finance Committee negotiating a bipartisan bill.
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who joined Conrad on Fox, said moving to co-ops would be a “step in the right direction” from what he said he saw as a government takeover of healthcare. He said co-ops are something Congress should look at in considering healthcare reform legislation.
Conrad also suggested Finance may not make a mid-September deadline for reaching an agreement. He said the six senators on the panel who are working on a compromise have agreed to "be ready when we're ready." While Conrad said they hope to reach a conclusion by mid-September, they won't be bound by that timeframe.
“This is not something that should be held hostage to any specific deadline,” he said.
This story was updated at 10:09 a.m.