Centrist Dems wary of public option push

Greg Nash

Centrist Democrats appear reluctant to join their party’s embrace of a public option for ObamaCare.  

The idea of adding a government-run insurance option to compete with private insurers is making a comeback in the Democratic Party, with President Obama endorsing the idea Monday, two days after presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton emphasized a public option as part of an effort to win over Bernie Sanders and his supporters after a contentious primary.

{mosads}But among more centrist members of the Senate, where the “public option” was stopped in 2009, there is little enthusiasm for the idea. 

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D), who represents conservative-leaning North Dakota, pushed back the hardest.

“I think it’s critically important that we stop trying to complicate healthcare and we start taking a look at what needs to be fixed in ObamaCare,” Heitkamp said. “Until we actually have those conversations and we have bipartisan support, I think it’s unrealistic to assume that we’re going to see any kind of expansion of care.”

Heitkamp proposed tweaks to the health law, along with other centrist Democrats, in 2014, such as streamlining reporting requirements to lighten the load on businesses.  

While a public option has no chance of passing so long as Republicans control the House and Senate, it’s far from certain that the idea could pass a Democratic Congress, given the skepticism or outright opposition among centrists like Heitkamp. 

Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), another Democrat from a red-leaning state, referred questions to his press office when asked if he supported a public option. His press office did not respond to inquiries.  

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who survived a reelection scare in 2014, was noncommittal on the question of a public option, pivoting to a different change he’d like to see in ObamaCare.

He called for addressing the requirement in ObamaCare for providing coverage to people who work more than 30 hours per week. Critics of the law say that requirement has created an incentive for employers be push people into part-time positions.

“As we talk about other options, we also have to address things like [the] 29 to 30 hour cliff,” Warner said. 

That “cliff” is an issue usually raised by Republicans. 

While the public option has been embraced in the liberal-leaning quarters of the party, more centrist Democrats simply said they were unsure and had to study the details. 

“I’d have to see it first to see; it’s a big term,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said when asked about Obama’s public option proposal.  

When asked if he supports a public option in general terms, Nelson said, “I’m not going to answer that, because I don’t want to answer generally. I want to answer specifically.” 

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) offered a similar response. 

“I had not heard that, so let me just take a look at it,” Carper said. “When we passed the Affordable Care Act, unfortunately we had to do it very much on a party line vote, and it’s unfortunate, because if it had been a bipartisan bill, it would have been better, I think.” 

“I’m proud of what we did nonetheless,” he added. “Can that early work be improved upon? Sure it can.” 

Asked if he is open to the idea of a public option in general terms, Carper did not answer directly, instead joking, “I’m happy to hear all kinds of good ideas, even the president’s.”

Both Nelson and Carper voted against a more liberal version of the public option in the Senate Finance Committee in 2009 while voting in favor of a version seen as more moderate, put forward by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Obama, who supported a public option in 2009 before dropping it to win passage of the law, renewed his call in an article published on Monday. He said that while there is strong competition on the ObamaCare marketplaces for most people, in some states there are only one or two insurers. He said a public option could add competition in those areas. 

Clinton has gone farther, in that she does not geographically limit where the public option would be. She has also called for allowing people to buy into Medicare at age 55. 

Clinton’s proposals drew praise from Sanders, the champion of the surging left wing of the party, on Saturday. 

“The goal of health care reform in America is to guarantee health care for all as a right, what every other major country on earth does,” Sanders wrote on Twitter.

“Today’s proposal by [Clinton] is an important step toward expanding health insurance and health care access to millions of Americans.”

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