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June 25, 2009

Public Option: Good Solution

Tony Soltero

There is no issue that has exposed the ideological bankruptcy of the American right more than the debate over the inclusion of a public option as an integral part of health-insurance reform. With a straight face, conservatives have argued, sometimes within the same interview, that any health insurance program run and funded by the government is doomed to fail.


They say it’s because government can't do anything right, and a public option would be a bad idea because everyone would flock to it and it would drive private insurance companies out of business.


Um, okay.


If we had competent journalists to call the right-wingers out on this naked contradiction, the debate would have moved well beyond this point by now. We don't – such is the sorry state of our media. But that's another story.


Right now, what the public option debate has done is show that the right doesn't really believe what it spews about free-market dogma and the evils of government "interfering" in the economy. If they really did believe what they said, they'd just let the public option skate through with nary a dissenting word. After all, it can't possibly succeed, can it? It's a socialist-pinko-government program – nobody would subscribe to that.


But, as always, actions speak louder than words. The insurance industry, which profits enormously from the health crises of Americans, has launched a fierce propaganda assault against the public option. It has buried its financial hooks into almost all Republican legislators, and a good chunk of Democrats, and has gotten them to spout the industry line that public health insurance is a loser that can't work, and it must be stopped at all costs because it'll hurt their bottom line. And too many of our professional chatterers eat this stuff up with nary a raised eyebrow.


And why are they opposing this public option so ruthlessly? Because, their claims to the contrary, they know that a public option can work and will result in millions of Americans switching to such a plan, thus costing them some of their massive profits. And a recent spate of opinion polls shows that Americans strongly support the idea of a public option.


Not to mention that a public option would be a bonanza for small businesses who are struggling to meet ever-rising healthcare premiums for their employees, to the point where many are dropping coverage altogether. And it would free employers to hire the best people for the job, whether or not they're "insurable."


Now, one might sympathize with the insurance industry's plight here. It simply depends on whether one believes that the practice of medicine exists to treat and heal people and to maintain a healthy society, or whether it exists to enrich insurance companies. If one believes it's the latter, then, of course, one would naturally oppose the public option.


But there's a reason it's a public option. Any American who's satisfied with his current health coverage will be perfectly free to keep it. And, with a public option in place, one's private insurer has far less incentive to rescind coverage from a policyholder who has become ill, or to deny coverage to citizens with certain pre-existing conditions. A public option will serve as a valuable check on the worst excesses of insurance companies.


After all, there are plenty of other industries in which a public option cheerfully coexists with private entities – such as mail delivery. We have the public Postal Service side-by-side with private couriers like FedEx. And the private mail services have developed and expanded – but millions of Americans still use the USPS. The presence of the USPS on the scene has forced the private mail carriers to provide competitive, innovative services to gain market share. Which they have. (And vice versa.) Would United Parcel Service be as good as they are if Americans didn't also have the parcel-post option?


There's also education. Most Americans send their students to public schools – and most Americans are perfectly satisfied with that arrangement. But those who aren't have plenty of private and religious schools as alternatives, and the presence of public education hasn't prevented these private educational institutions from thriving.


So, even if one grants that the poor, persecuted and misunderstood insurance industry needs special protection from the government, there's no reason a public option would hurt the private companies – unless, of course, the private companies intend to repeatedly engage in claims denial and extortion. You know, the kinds of practices that cost a company market share in a competitive economy. Is that their plan?


Healthcare reform without a public option is no reform at all. It’s simply Titanic deck-chair rearranging. The public option isn't a perfect solution to our healthcare woes; the devil's in the details and it's going to require an enormous amount of skill and dedication from our leaders to tease out the potential pitfalls and deal with them.


But the arguments the health-industry lobbyists, and their political water-carriers, are floating against the public option are false, disingenuous, and blatantly self-contradictory.


And despite their best efforts, the public is seeing right through them.


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