Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) renewed push for a government-run healthcare plan is getting a tepid reception from Democrats, with some saying he is waging a losing battle.

Long-time “public option” supporters like Sanders believe Aetna’s decision to flee the ObamaCare marketplaces this week proves what they’ve been saying all along: that the time has come for a new government-run healthcare plan in the United States.

{mosads}But on Capitol Hill, Democrats think a fight over a public option is nearly impossible to win, regardless of how the November election shakes out. 

“The public option was a good idea in 2009, and it’s a still a good idea today. [But] I don’t know that the politics have changed at all on it,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a top ObamaCare advocate, said by phone Wednesday.

Democratic leaders were forced to drop a public insurance option from early drafts of ObamaCare, to the deep disappointment of liberals. At the time, it was clear the idea would never garner the votes to pass. 

But the idea is making a comeback this year, at least among top Democrats.

Both Sanders and Hillary Clinton, his former rival in the Democratic presidential primary, have touted the public option on the campaign trail, with Clinton mentioning it in a speech as recently as Thursday. Last month, President Obama also urged Congress to “revisit a public plan to compete alongside private insurers” to help boost competition.

With Democrats having a real shot of winning back the Senate this fall, Sanders and other public option supporters are making their move.

Sanders generated a passionate following during his presidential bid and hopes to turn his network of supporters into a force for change on Capitol Hill. Adding to his leverage, the Vermont senator could win the top slot on the powerful Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee next year if Democrats win back the majority.

The public option, sometimes referred to as “Medicare for all,” would compete with private insurers but not replace them. Opponents of the idea say it would inevitably lead to government-run healthcare, much like what is found in Europe.

Democrats who back the proposal say the public is on their side. Seven in 10 people said they supported the public option, according to a 2015 poll by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC). Among Democrats, the support rises to about 77 percent. 

The PCCC is calling on Clinton to use the “super popular” issue to help drive Democrats to the polls in November and to make it a top priority early next year.

“Aetna’s announcement proves the larger point that private insurance companies are willing to deny care to make a few extra dollars,” Kait Sweeney, press secretary for the PCCC, wrote in a statement Tuesday, describing what she called “new urgency” for Clinton. 

But a sustained push from Clinton for the public option would be fraught with risk, reopening old wounds in the Democratic Party.

The public option barely made it into the House’s initial versions of the healthcare law. It was later scrapped in the Senate over concerns from moderate Democrats.

After the law passed in March 2010 without a public option, Democratic leaders were accused of caving into corporate interests, while Obama was accused of “selling out.”

Six years after its passage, few of the Democrats who had opposed the public option remain in office. But that doesn’t mean that passing legislation has gotten any easier.

Given that Republicans are likely to control the House in 2017, any legislation tied to ObamaCare — let alone to the public option — appears to have little chance of passing. 

“I think Republicans are still pretty hell-bent about destroying the Affordable Care Act, which makes it difficult to envision a scenario where you can get support for a public option in the House, even if Democrats take back the Senate,” added Murphy, who supported the public option while he was serving in the House in 2009.

Democrats also appear wary of another politically taxing battle over healthcare. 

Out of the 11 Democrats running for open or contested seats this year, only Sen. Chris Van Hollen (Md.) is pushing the public opinion during campaign appearances.

Healthcare could be a particularly tough sell for Clinton, who was badly bruised in the “HillaryCare” fight in the 1990s.

While she has pledged to defend and strengthen ObamaCare as president, she’s given few signs that she would put healthcare at the top of her agenda in 2017.

Richard Kirsch, who helped lead the charge for a public option in ObamaCare, said he knew back in 2010 that the fight for a public option was not over just because it was scrapped from the law’s text.   

“We warned that without that public option, consumers would be at the mercy of insurance companies,” Kirsch said. “Now we’ve seen that when insurers decided it’s not profitable enough … they can walk away from the market.”

Tags Bernie Sanders Chris Murphy Hillary Clinton
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