WASHINGTON (CN) – The public option at the center of the ideological divide over health care was the focus of debate in the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday that split cleanly along party lines. The Democrats said the public option provided more choice to consumers while the Republicans called it a “slow walk” to a single-payer system.
After debating the bill most of last week, the markup session has now lasted five days.
“We are clearly giving this bill the due consideration it deserves,” Chairman Max Baucus said, a Montana Democrat.
So far, the committee has addressed just 60 of the 564 amendments proposed.
Republicans argued that a public option would eliminate competition by outcompeting private insurers, and said the option would ultimately become a single-payer plan.
Democrats argued that a public option would give choice to consumers, and that it would stimulate competition in a currently uncompetitive market.
West Virginia Democrat Sen. John Rockefeller introduced an amendment to add what has widely been called a public option to the health-care bill. He described it as a free-market plan, even as a “Republican plan.” He said the federal government won’t be able to set rates or premiums, and that it will be run by a non-profit group.
The amendment would also mandate that doctors cover patients under the public plan for two years, if they wish to continue treating Medicare patients.
“Seventy percent of the American people want this,” Rockefeller said of the public option.
According to a recently published New York Times report, 65 percent of Americans would support a government-administered health insurance plan.
Running way over his allotted time, Rockefeller repeated many times that “this will be optional,” he said. “Nobody has to do this.” He predicted that only 5 percent of Americans will decide to adopt the plan, at least for now.
The amendment rivals one introduced by Sen. Schumer.
Ranking Member Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, spoke out against the public option. “I think it is a slow walk towards government controlled, single-payer healthcare.”
He also mirrored long-held republican concerns that “a government-run plan will ultimately run private insurers out of business,” saying the government will regulate the market to favor the plan, putting private companies at a disadvantage.
New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez appeared to dismiss such a worry. “We all know that insurance companies can compete at a lower price point,” he said, “but they just don’t have to right now.”
Menendez added that in many places, only one or two companies in the market, combating Republican arguments that a public option would diminish competition.
In a 2008 report by the American Medical Association found that Wellpoint Inc. accounted for 71 percent of the Maine market and that runner-up Aetna made up 12 percent.
But Grassley expressed worry over what would happen to doctors and hospitals under a public plan. “Doctors and physicians are underpaid by public plans,” he said, noting the difficulty in keeping rural hospitals open already. He expressed doubt that these hospitals could survive if they are paid less.
Schumer took Grassley up on his criticism of government plans. “The main knock you’ve made on Sen. Rockefeller’s amendment, and I assume on mine, is that its government run,” he said. “Medicare is government run.” “You’re supportive of Medicare. I just don’t understand the difference.”
Grassley expressed his support of Medicare, calling it “part of the social fabric of America,” but he maintained that it’s far from perfect.
Schumer called Grassley’s comments “a bit of a contradiction.”
The committee has a long day, with plans to break for dinner and return at 7:15pm. It is expected to vote today on whether to add a public option.