The public option is in our court…

I watched the Sunday shows this weekend, and yet most media outlets picked up on a story that I didn’t, that the White House was seeming to back away from the “public health insurance option” as part of its health reform plan.

That was the headline in the New York Times, Washington Post, AP and other stories. But the text of all of these articles don’t reference some internal document or leak by White House staff. It’s all based on a tea-leaf reading of these Sunday shows, where the Obama Administration officials have said what they have said on these shows for weeks and months: that the public health insurance option is part of the President’s proposal, something he argues for every time he talks about the bill, but he’s not drawing any lines in the sand at this point.

Marc Ambinder at The Atlantic reports some of the clarification:

An administration official said tonight that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius “misspoke” when she told CNN this morning that a government run health insurance option “is not an essential part” of reform. This official asked not to be identified in exchange for providing clarity about the intentions of the President. The official said that the White House did not intend to change its messaging and that Sebelius simply meant to echo the president, who has acknowledged that the public option is a tough sell in the Senate and is, at the same time, a must-pass for House Democrats, and is not, in the president’s view, the most important element of the reform package.

A second official, Linda Douglass, director of health reform communications for the administration, said that President Obama believed that a public option was the best way to reduce costs and promote competition among insurance companies, that he had not backed away from that belief, and that he still wanted to see a public option in the final bill.

“Nothing has changed,” she said. “The President has always said that what is essential that health insurance reform lower costs, ensure that there are affordable options for all Americans and increase choice and competition in the health insurance market. He believes that the public option is the best way to achieve these goals.”

The public health insurance option is not the only part of health reform, but it is important.
With regulation of the insurance industry, it makes sure that individuals are not left all alone at the mercy of the big insurers. It provide competition and choice, especially if the insurers continue some of their abusive practices. The CBO has scored that it will save money for both consumers and taxpayers alike.

But I think the coverage was overblown because the issue isn’t the White House; it is Congress. The President can’t sign a bill that Congress doesn’t place on his desk. So while the President has some influence, it’s ultimately up to Congress. And that means it is up to us.

Virtually all the Democrats in California, even the “Blue Dogs,” said they support a public health insurance option. Many California leaders in House of Representatives, from Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Congressional Black Caucus Chair Barbara Lee have stated that a public health insurance option is a top issue for them.

We as health advocates need to continue our advocacy for health reform in general, and for a public health insurance option, to support these champions, and to shore up waverers. President Obama is committed to sign health reform with a public option. We should encourage him to continue to speak up and fight for it.

But it’s up to Congress, and that means it is up to us…

UPDATE: From the Swampland blog at Time magazine, here’s a transcript of White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, indicating the White House hasn’t changed its support of the public health insurance option, and the bills in play still contain a public health insurance option:

Q Just to be completely clear, has anything changed on the public option?

MR. GIBBS: No. I challenge you guys all to go back and see what we’ve said about this over the course of many, many, many, many months, and you’ll find a boring consistency to our rhetoric.

Q The rhetoric, as you say, might be consistent, but the movement on the ground, so to speak, toward legislation hasn’t been. Is there any recognition now that a public option is looking less likely to be part of a final deal?

MR. GIBBS: Let me make sure I understand your question, because I want to know if it’s — is this predicated on legislative developments since Congress has been out of session, or are we trying to match the stampede of a series of stories to if not the consistent language that we’ve all been saying to some now legislative vote?…

Q But you guys have — you haven’t exactly come out publicly since Sebelius’ statement yesterday, come in front of the cameras to speak to us, to downplay —

MR. GIBBS: Because nothing has changed.

Q But you haven’t downplayed the remarks and the coverage either.

MR. GIBBS: No, no, I think many people talked to you all yesterday. I think people sent e-mails. David Axelrod called people… Nothing has changed. I mean, we can go out and say nothing has changed, but that seems sort of silly since nothing has changed.

Look, in terms of the political realities, obviously there’s a public plan — or public option in the House bill. There is a public option in the HELP bill. I don’t know what the Senate Finance Committee will come out with.

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