When members of Congress caved to demands from the insurance industry and ditched their plan to establish a “public option” health plan, the lawmakers also ditched one of their favorite talking points, that a government-run plan was necessary to “keep insurers honest.”
Getting rid of a government-run insurance option was the industry’s top objective during the health care reform debate. Private insurers set out to persuade President Obama and Congressional leaders that they were trustworthy. Lawmakers were led to believe, for one thing, that insurers could be trusted to offer policies that would continue to give Americans’ access to the doctors they had developed relationships with and wanted to keep. And they were persuaded that insurers wouldn’t think of engaging in bait-and-switch tactics that would leave folks with less coverage than they thought they were buying.
When he was running for president, Obama regularly talked about the need for a public option. That was one reason why many health care reform advocates supported him instead of Hillary Clinton.
He kept insisting on a public option for months after he was elected. He said on July 18, 2009, “Any plan I sign must include an insurance exchange—a one-stop-shopping marketplace where you can compare the benefits, costs and track records of a variety of plans, including a public option to increase competition and keep insurance companies honest...”
Soon after that, though, he began to waffle. It became clear to me as well as public option supporters in Congress that industry lobbyists had gotten to him. In an effort to keep the public option idea alive, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi invited me to testify during a Sept. 16, 2009, meeting of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee Forum on Health Insurance Reform.
Knowing the industry as I did, I told the committee that if Congress failed to create a public option to compete with private insurers, “the bill it sends to the President might as well be called “The Insurance Industry Profit Protection and Enhancement Act.” Pelosi insisted that Congress had no intention of doing that.
While Pelosi was able to get a bill through the House with a public option provision, she couldn’t control what was happening in the Senate. Although a majority of Senate Democrats supported the public option, the industry knew it only needed one senator who caucused with the Dems to change his mind and kill it.
A senator from Connecticut, the insurance capital of the world, became the industry’s go-to guy. Insurers had spent years investing in Sen. Joe Lieberman, a former Democrat-turned-Independent. During the reform debate, the watchdog group Public Campaign Action Fund, (now called EveryVoice), called Lieberman an “insurance puppet,” noting that insurers had contributed nearly half a million dollars to his campaigns over the years.