Collins, Lieberman doubtful on public option; more supportive of 'trigger'

Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) both cast doubt Tuesday on their support for a public-option component to the Democratic healthcare reform effort, which suggests that the Obama administration is still struggling to win over key Senate centrists.

However, Collins and Lieberman both told The Hill they are more supportive of a “trigger” concept floated by Collins’s Senate colleague, Maine Republican Olympia Snowe, which calls for a public option to be implemented if insurance companies fail to fix the current system’s cost inefficiencies.

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Reform supporters and critics alike are watching Collins, who cast a key vote this winter for President Barack Obama’s stimulus bill, and Lieberman, who occasionally breaks with Democrats, although he caucuses with the party and generally supports it on domestic issues.

“I’m opposed to a Washington-run public option,” Collins said. “I believe it would cause many people to lose health insurance that they’re currently happy with now, and that’s contrary to the assurances that advocates of the public option have been giving. I’m also concerned about the cost and control issue.

“A trigger is certainly a better approach, but I’m not convinced that we could rely on this administration to resist the lure of triggering the public option.”

Collins’s wariness comes despite “several” conversations she said she had with Obama in July on the issue, as well as other administration officials, including Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Collins said no such conversations took place over the August recess, however, at a time when the Obama administration ramped up its courting of Snowe.

Collins’s comments suggest that the administration approached her for support and determined her to be an unlikely ally. Collins did say she spoke for a half-hour last week with Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who is leading a six-way series of bipartisan talks on a Finance Committee health bill.

Lieberman, whose state is home to several large insurers, said the debate over a public option has become a “distraction” to the larger issue of reform. He said while he is “interested in taking a look at” the idea of a public-option trigger, he opposes a fixed public-option plan.

“If you create a government health insurance plan, the government is inevitably going to be spending money on it, and that means taxpayers will be spending more money on it,” he said. “And I just don’t think at this stage in our history, with all of the terrible national debt that we’re facing, that we should be adding another government agency to do this kind of thing.”

Lieberman said he does support several ideas aimed at cracking down on insurers, such as guaranteeing coverage and eliminating prohibitions based on pre-existing conditions. And in areas where insurers have a monopoly on health coverage, Lieberman said the Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department should be enforcing antitrust laws.

“People say, ‘We’ve got to keep the insurance companies honest,’ but to me the better way to do that is through government regulation,” he said.