Public option essential, will not lead to rationing or curbing doctor choice

Comprehensive health reform is going to happen this year because the status quo simply is not working. And the problems driving the need for reform are the very reasons we need to establish a public health insurance option.

More Americans than ever are uninsured — 47 million today, up from 35 million the last time comprehensive health reform was tried and failed. Those Americans with insurance have seen the costs soar while knowing that it could be gone in a New York minute, through the loss of a job or a career change, some unexpected illness or tragic accident.

The combination of a lack of insurance and rising costs have made healthcare expenses the No. 1 cause of personal bankruptcies in this country. And the story isn’t any better for America’s businesses. For those that offer coverage, they have seen the premiums they pay increase over 100 percent in just 10 years.

To achieve lower costs and better health outcomes, we simply need to make our existing healthcare market work better. Due to a lack of real competition in the marketplace, private insurance companies have achieved virtual monopolies in many areas of the country. A recent study showed that 96 percent of regions in the U.S. have a highly concentrated health insurance market where one carrier holds over 30 percent of the market. This lack of competitive insurance markets has led to healthcare costs skyrocketing in many parts of the country.

A public health insurance option would address this problem, and make our healthcare marketplace work more efficiently. A public health insurance option, crafted to compete with private insurance on a level playing field, would finally provide much-needed competition in the broken health insurance market. Without the pressure to return large quarterly profits, a government-sponsored health plan would put pressure on private plans to bring their costs down, with the savings passed along to businesses and consumers.

Detractors often claim that a public plan is a Trojan horse for an inevitable single-payer healthcare system. Don’t be fooled — this argument is just a scare tactic used by those that benefit from a broken healthcare marketplace that overpays. A public insurance option is nothing more than a tool to address a serious failure of our current health insurance system with a uniquely American solution.

Further, this public option would be just that — an option. If you like the coverage you have you can keep it. You don’t have to do anything. And better still, reforms under consideration like eliminating discrimination for pre-existing conditions and prohibiting gender rating should help make your current plan better and cheaper. Opponents of a public option wish to limit choice for consumers by requiring everyone to purchase insurance from a menu of only private, largely for-profit, plans.

Also, a public plan won’t lead to rationing of care nor will it limit your choice of doctors. If the public option curtails coverage or doctor choice, no one will sign up for it. It’s that simple. To the contrary, the public plan provides an opportunity to implement innovative models for providing greater access to comprehensive primary and preventive care services. This effort is especially important in areas of the country facing physician and nursing shortages.

Our current health insurance market doesn’t work — it’s too expensive for families and businesses, and it doesn’t provide enough choice and competition. Creating a truly competitive insurance marketplace means lower costs for everyone. It means comprehensive benefits packages that encourage and enable everyone to get regular primary care and not wait until an illness has fully developed to the point that it is more costly and dangerous. And a public plan will give patients greater choice and peace of mind, knowing that healthcare coverage is within their reach.

The huge problems of access and cost have only grown worse over the last few decades. Enacting comprehensive health reform that includes a public option is the only way to ensure that everyone has health insurance choices and that we bring down the cost of healthcare.

Capps, Murphy, DeGette and Harman are members of the centrist New Democrat Coalition and serve on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Harman is also a member of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition.