Kyl prefers opt-in healthcare over opt-out

Senate GOP Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) on Tuesday said he supports the idea of allowing states to decide whether to opt in to a publicly run health plan.

Kyl told The Hill he remains opposed to the Senate Democrats’ plan, which is being scored by the Congressional Budget Office. The bill would establish the option in states but allow them to opt out.

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The GOP whip said he prefers letting states decide whether to join instead of their being put in automatically. He said he didn’t know if he would offer the idea as an amendment during the floor debate that is expected to start within days.

“I agree that states should have the option to opt in,” Kyl said. “But I don’t even know if they have this provision written yet,” he said. “I certainly haven’t seen it.”

Kyl’s statement could offer the seeds of a compromise with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), though a bipartisan accord is unlikely. States could opt out of the public plan before 2014.

Liberal senators and advocacy groups had pressured Reid to include a public option component, but Senate centrists like Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine have expressed skepticism about the Reid plan.

Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) said Democrats will study the idea of an “opt-in” proposal.

“We’ll see what happens in this debate, but we begin with a common position here: Healthcare is best delivered at the local level,” Dodd said. “Like almost anything else I can think of, giving localities … the right to determine what’s best for them makes sense. States ought to have that choice.”

Kyl’s statement caught some other senior GOP senators by surprise, with GOP Policy Chairman John Thune (S.D.) saying he did not think most Republicans would follow Kyl’s lead.

“I’d be really surprised if Sen. Kyl votes for anything that includes a government plan,” Thune said. “[Democrats] have to come up with a way for this to not look like what it is, but at the end of the day it still is what it is, which is a government plan. You know that’s where a lot of Democrats want to go, and they’re trying to come up with a clever way to get 60 votes to keep everybody together on their side.”

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) indicated possible support for Kyl’s idea, but only under conditions.

“If your citizens don’t get taxed for the healthcare bill and as long as you don’t have the consequences of it, that’s a possibility,” Coburn said. “But [Democrats] aren’t about to allow that. They wouldn’t allow it in the first place. Opting in is totally different than opting out.”

But most GOP senators disagreed, saying that most states wouldn’t be able to resist the opt-in proposal, setting up a system that quickly becomes lopsided.

“I don’t think we should even do that, because the big states will [opt in] and the rest of us will end up paying for their excesses,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

Meanwhile, politicians at the state level are also positioning themselves in the public option fight.

In Virginia, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds has suggested he would “certainly consider opting out” of a public option “if that were available to Virginia,” he said last week during a debate with his GOP opponent, Bob McDonnell. McDonnell, similarly, has stressed he opposes a public plan — a sentiment, he told Fox News last week, that is shared by Virginians, many of whom are not “very excited” about “turning over the best doctors, the best hospitals” to the government.

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In New Jersey, Gov. Jon Corzine (D) has already made clear he would not opt out of the government plan.

His GOP opponent — former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie — has not yet made such a declaration, but Christie has previously signaled his disapproval for any government intervention in health insurance reform.

Fourteen state legislatures are dominated by Republicans, and eight are under split-party control.