Public option or bust

If constituents of Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) dislike rising insurance premiums, they will dislike even more the premium increases after a healthcare bill that does not include a public option, or an ironclad guarantee of a public option if abuses continue.

If constituents of Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) dislike the high rate of uninsured Nebraskans, they will dislike even more that they are forced to pay high premiums they can’t afford, and suffer IRS-like punishment if they don’t, which will happen without a public option or an ironclad guarantee of a public option if abuses continue.

Sen. Snowe is right. Subsidies are needed, but they should help the poor pay fair premiums, not overpay insurers who gain windfall profits overcharging them.

Small business squeezed between banks’ refusal to lend and a jobless recovery will be punished by higher premiums if private insurers hold all the cards without a public option.

This is not a minor issue. It is the major issue.

The insurance industry does not exist to help poor people, jobless workers or struggling homeowners. It does not exist to help small businesses or working moms struggling to make ends meet. It does not exist to help young people, but to extract the highest premiums from young people, who will not need as much care, to pay the costs of older folks, who do.

The insurance industry is largely driven by Wall Street. It exists to maximize revenue through the highest premiums, minimize costs through the fewest claims, enhance bottom-line profits, increase stock price and achieve huge compensation for CEOs often paid $10 million per year.

My father, Murray Budowsky, was an Army medic and war hero at Bastogne during World War II. He became a major insurance player with blue-chip firms. I often heard him fight for his clients when the home office tried to wrongfully deny claims. He sold policies to neighbors and friends and demanded they get a fair deal.

Many clients don’t have Murray Budowskys fighting for them. They go bankrupt, suffer in poverty, endure untreated pain or die prematurely in death panels of neglect that are the untold story of healthcare today.

The public option issue is as old as original sin, and as new as the latest Wall Street scandal. Insurance co-ops are great but are not a credible check and balance to huge private insurers. Insurance exchanges are great, but without more they perpetuate an oligopoly, leaving consumers at great disadvantage.

In a recent Washington Post/ABC poll, almost 80 percent of Americans support a public option for citizens who can’t afford private policies.

The Senate giant who is missed with indescribable sadness once said, “Sometimes a great party must sail against the wind.” The question for a Democratic president and Congress is whether they can sail with the wind for a policy supported by a majority of voters, the House, the Senate and four committees that have acted so far.

If they do, they can achieve historic greatness. If they don’t, count me out.

Budowsky was an aide to former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and Bill Alexander, then chief deputy majority whip of the House. He holds an LL.M. degree in international financial law from the London School of Economics. He can be read on The Hill’s Pundits Blog and reached at