DeGette: House health bill will include public option

DENVER– At a town hall meeting held at National Jewish Hospital here that covered hot-button topics including abortion, euthanasia, illegal immigration and swine flu, Democratic U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette stated that she would not vote for a health reform bill that did not include either a public option or an alternative that would challenge private health insures to reduce the cost of health care coverage.

U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette at a Denver health care town hall
U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette at a Denver health care town hall

“We have to have something in this exchange that will lead to competition,” she said, adding that, as majority whip, she had counted the votes and could “guarantee that a bill will not pass out of the House without a public option or some robust alternative.”

DeGette told constituents here that because insurance companies are not regulated by federal anti-trust laws, no real competition exists.

“What that means is that in many parts of the country we don’t have real competition for insurance, which is one reason insurance company profits continue to go up, people’s coverage continues to go down and there is no cost containment.”

As she has done in previous forums, DeGette cited the Massachusetts health care system plan, noting that although it is mandatory, it fails to foster competition.

“Massachusetts costs have gone up at least as much or more than [costs in] the rest of the country. There is no cost containment.”

She outlined how the new federal plan she backs would be different.

“The concept of the public plan is that it will be set up by the HHS and administered by the government… But it will be completely funded by premiums, just like private insurance, and it will have to comply with all of the same rules and requirements.”

“We think that something that is essentially a non-profit plan competing with these for-profit insurance companies in the exchange will help, in the American competitive spirit, to give cost containment, to bring down premium prices, and to give consumers better options in that exchange, in both the private and public options,” DeGette said.

Degette said that so far she had yet to see any alternative plan that would similarly drive down costs.

“I’ve seen nothing to date that would provide the competition that the public option would give us in the exchange,” she said. “But I leave myself open to the idea. I think it is possible that somebody could come up with another option that would give us those three goals.”

DeGette said that the heated debate surrounding the public option had moved the discussion, making the words ‘public option’ a buzz term that was now a vague symbol tied to ideology more than specific policy.

“What I fear is that people are beginning to polarize this way or that way [over the public option]. But it would be foolish of us to pass health care reform if we didn’t give some kind of competition to the health care companies.”

Yet participants in the town hall asked DeGette the questions that have characterized the polarized debate this month. One woman asked why she would have to pay for euthanasia and abortion.

DeGette offered the same explanations that Democratic lawmakers have been advancing for weeks in response but mostly providing little satisfaction.

DeGette said the bill had in it provisions that would not allow for any federal monies to be provided for abortion procedures. She said that the euthanasia myth surrounding the bill was ill founded. The bill merely allows caregivers to be reimbursed for consultations concerned with end-of-life care.

Another woman voiced her concern that the bill would amount to welfare for illegal aliens.

“The bill does not cover people who are here illegally, period,” said DeGette, adding that she would like to see a comprehensive immigration bill enacted in the up-coming session.

We need to figure out how to treat people who have no status in the United States, she said, using the H1N1 virus as an example of the problems we need to address head-on.

“That virus is not going to discriminate between somebody who is a citizen and somebody who is not. ”

She was also asked whether she supported easing regulations so that consumers could purchase insurance across state borders.

Although she stated that H.R. 3200 would essentially do just that by allowing companies to enter the insurance exchange and compete with each other as well as the public option, she noted that simply dropping state barriers to insurance purchases might lead to abuses. Insurers would likely relocate to states that had minimal insurance requirements and regulations, resulting in lower-level care at higher cost.

A man who said he was “totally against the bill” when he arrived at the town hall said he had learned something.

“I learned one thing today. [DeGette] has more than air between her ears. I still disagree with her on a lot of what she said, but she really thought it through.”

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