Progressive health care reform advocates got a major boost in their efforts to secure a public plan for insurance coverage when newly minted Democrat Arlen Specter said he would be open to such a proposal in a legislative compromise.
In a letter to the group Health Care for America Now, the Pennsylvania Democrat backed away from his position weeks ago opposing the plan. Now, under increasing pressure from progressive groups, Specter says he looks forward to "discussing and considering" the issue.
Separately, centrist Democratic senators told the Huffington Post they are keeping the door open to a public health care option after a compromise proposal from Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) last week. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) publicly announced his opposition to a public option the week before, spurring worry among advocates that more defections could be on the way.
Schumer's compromise emphasizes that the public health care plan must finance itself through premiums and must follow the same laws private insurers follow. He argues that it will be a better plan because it won't need to focus on advertising or generating short-term profits for Wall Street.
Even Nelson said he's listening. "I know he's making a strong effort here to find something that would work and I've talked to him about it and we're going to continue to talk," Nelson said.
So you're open to it?
"I'm open to listening to him explain to me how this would work and certainly congratulate him for coming forward with something. It's better than just saying no."
Specter, in his letter, said Schumer's proposal could serve as a useful "starting point" for discussions about a public health plan.
"With respect to the clause in the third bullet - 'to join a public health insurance plan' - I look forward to discussing and considering the issue. A starting point could be the proposal made by Senator Schumer earlier this week which seeks to maintain a level playing field between the private sector and any public plan. There may well be other proposals on this issue which should be considered in drafting legislation and debating the bill on the Senate floor."
"The other issue which I think requires extensive debate and analysis is the clause in the eighth bullet - 'using the public's purchasing power to lower drug and other prices.'.... In order to maintain a level playing field between the private sector and any public plan, consideration would have to be given to the implications of the Government's purchasing power in buying prescription drugs which could provide an unfair competitive advantage. There may be other proposals on this issue which should be considered in drafting legislation and debating the issue on the Senate floor."
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) says that she's still weighing the public option. "I am actually not sure," she told the Huffington Post. "I don't think I am [for it], but I told the folks that are promoting it that I would talk with them, but I am an original cosponsor of the Wyden-Bennett bipartisan proposal -- the only bipartisan proposal that I know of. And so I'm going to stay focused on that as a core, but I'm not going to shut the door on anything right now."
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) is not pushing his proposal aggressively; the biggest fight in the Senate is whether to include a public option. Wyden supports a public option himself, but didn't include it in order to garner Republican cosponsors.
But not all Senate Republicans are entirely closed off to a public plan.
"I am looking at all the alternatives at this point," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) of the public option. "I have a lot of concerns about the impact of a public plan. The Lewin Group has estimated that it could cause 119 million people to be transferred from private plans to public plans, which would mean the collapse of the private insurance system which I don't think would serve our country well."
Asked specifically about Schumer's compromise, she said she had yet to review it. Public plan advocates dispute the Lewin Group findings and insist a public plan can work in conjunction with private insurers.
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) sounded disinclined to support a public option, but he hasn't shut the door yet. "I don't have a closed mind on it, but I want to hear folks out through advocates and we'll decide," he said.
Sen. Jim Webb is one centrist Democrat who has come out in favor of a public plan. His Virginia colleague, Democrat Mark Warner, hasn't gone that far yet. But he's open.
"I haven't weighed in on that yet," Warner said.
The White House announced a commitment Sunday night to partner with the insurance industry to cut health care costs by $2 trillion, a collaboration that Paul Krugman declared "some of the best policy news I've heard in a long time."