Public option question still unanswered

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday that healthcare bill negotiators have no clear answer yet on whether the final product will include a public option plan.

Reid, Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee senior member Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) told reporters Tuesday they won’t answer the question considered central to the process until later, and possibly not until the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) issues a cost estimate.

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Senate leaders and White House officials are scheduled to gather Tuesday night for a third meeting on how to merge the Senate’s two competing healthcare bills.

Reid’s response to reporters on Tuesday suggests that the high-level meetings have so far focused on the peripheral, less controversial aspects of the bills passed by the HELP Committee in July and the Finance Committee last week. The question of a government role in healthcare has long since emerged as Republicans’ biggest complaint about the Democratic health reform effort.

Asked Tuesday if the talks are leaning “for or against” including a public option in the final merged bill, Reid delivered a deadpan attempt at humor, saying they are leaning “toward talking about” a public option.

“No decision has been made,” he said. “We had not a long discussion last night on public option. I’ve had a number of meetings in my office dealing with Democrats and Republicans on the public option aspect of it. ... When this is sent on the CBO I’ll make a decision as to what we’re going to do with the public option. It’s not done yet.”

Also Tuesday, Reid defended his strategy for passing a 10-year, $245 billion bill to supplement pending cuts to Medicare payments to physicians. Known as the “doctor fix” bill, the legislation has stalled for lack of 60 votes, after Republicans laid down a barrage of criticism that the bill is unfunded and would recklessly add to the deficit.

Asked if he could legitimately claim that the Senate’s healthcare bill is fully funded while simultaneously pushing the physician bill, Reid pointed to support for the bill from the House Blue Dogs known for their fiscal conservatism.

“The one thing we have to understand is, we’re going to make sure that senior citizens have the ability to go to a doctor when they’re sick,” Reid said. “That’s the key here. We’re going to make sure that more doctors take Medicare patients, not less. All the physicians in America today, all the senior citizens in America today should understand that people are looking [out] for them.”