Sen. Conrad: Public option a 'wasted effort'

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.

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“Look, the fact of the matter is there are not the votes in the U.S. Senate for the public option, there never have been,” Conrad said in an interview on “Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace.”

“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.