Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, is a key player in the health care debate, the sponsor of the only bipartisan health care bill in the Senate. Backers of the major Democratic plan, which would allow patients to buy into a public plan, see Wyden's bill, however, as an obstacle preventing centrist Democrats from fully jumping aboard the public-option train.
In an interview with the Huffington Post, Wyden said several times that if his proposal fails to become law, he's open to the public option. Wyden has been under pressure at home from unions and a health-care reform coalition to embrace the Democratic proposal.
"If I don't get my first choice and get various other options, I'm going to look at them," he said when asked about the public option. "I think there's a better, simpler consumer protection alternative. But if I don't prevail on that, then I'm going to look at the other ones."
Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) both told the Huffington Post they were open to a public option, but were backers of Wyden's bill and were hoping it would become law first. Wyden's openness to a public option gives his allies more room to maneuver.
For now, though, Wyden is still pushing his own proposal, which taxes employer-sponsored benefits and makes health care a legal guarantee. Insurers would be required to provide coverage at least as good as members of Congress get and the system would be subsidized by the taxes on current benefits. "I think I've got the ultimate consumer protection, and that is a legal guarantee that all Americans get health coverage at least as good as a member of Congress's," he said.
Labor has been pressuring Wyden at home; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the AFL-CIO have been running a campaign -- StopWydensHealthTax.com -- that charges Wyden's plan with undermining the employer-sponsored system.
Wyden says that his proposal goes down well at home.
"If you come to a town hall meeting in Oregon and you ask people about what they want in health reform, you get a bunch of folks who are for single-payer, you get a bunch of folks on the other side, and somebody stands up and says, 'What we really want is coverage like you people in Congress have,' and then the whole row erupts in applause," he said. "And that's what we've got in the Healthy Americans Act, we're going to fight for it, we'll see how I do when the Senate Finance Committee is actually marking up legislation in June."
Wyden didn't want to address the public option head on, saying instead that he thought his plan superior.
"I guess what I'd say is that there are a variety of ideas that are in circulation right now. I've told you what my first choice is. I think it's simple, I think it's understandable; I think it is a populist, proven approach. It's what I have and every other elected official has," he said.
The reform coalition Health Care for America NOW! has been pressuring Wyden with an ad in Oregon calling on him to embrace the public option. Watch:
Wyden's fuller comments to the Huffington Post on health care reform are below:
"You know, this is the heavy lifting period. When you're talking about paying for it, you get down to what I call the gut level issue, and I'll give you the math. This year in the United States we're going to spend $2.5 trillion on medical care. There are 305 million of us. If you divide 305 m into 2.5 trillion, you could go out and hire a doctor for every seven families in the United States and pay the doctor $225,000 for the year to take care of seven families. And whenever I bring this up with a group of physicians, they say, 'Ron, where would I go to get my seven families? Sounds pretty good.' So we're spending enough on health care, we're not spending in the right places. And that in my view is what today and some other discussions about containing costs is all about."
"The public option was not raised today. I was there for almost all of it, and then a couple bathroom breaks. It has been raised extensively in the Finance Committee discussions, so if you want to talk about public option I'm happy to do that, but it wasn't raised today."
"A couple of points. First, the Senate Finance Committee is going to go in in June, and I want to see what's presented. I think I have in the Healthy Americans Act, which is the first bipartisan bill there's been in the Senate with a big group of sponsors, I think I've got the ultimate consumer protection, and that is a legal guarantee that all Americans get health coverage at least as good as a member of Congress's. That is a legal guarantee ... and with that guarantee, you're linking the well-being of the typical American with what members of Congress have. And if you come to a town hall meeting in Oregon and you ask people about what they want in health reform, you get a bunch of folks who are for single-payer, you get a bunch of folks on the other side, and somebody stands up and says, 'What we really want is coverage like you people in Congress have,' and then the whole row erupts in applause. And that's what we've got in the Healthy Americans Act, we're going to fight for it, we'll see how I do when the Senate Finance Committee is actually marking up legislation in June, and if I don't get my first choice and get various other options I'm going to look at them."
"We have the most generous subsidies of any of the legislative proposals. And by the way, you know, the public option does not guarantee subsidies. The public option just simply says that Medicare or some other program would be available. In other words, you still have to find a way to pay for it. And we have the most generous subsidies, up to 400 percent of poverty, because we make tough insurance reforms. We slashed administrative costs, we take away tax breaks for some high-flyer who can go out and get a designer smile and bill it to the taxpayer, and it's all in the Congressional Budget Office report on our bill, which said that the legislation is budget-neutral. In effect, we have better legally guaranteed benefits at a cheaper price."
"I guess what I'd say is that there are a variety of ideas that are in circulation right now. I've told you what my first choice is. I think it's simple, I think it's understandable, I think it is a populist, proven approach. It's what I have and every other elected official has. So that's my first choice, and you know what I tell folks is I'm gonna listen to all the ideas that are presented in the Senate Finance Committee. But I think if you come to a town meeting in my home state, this is the one that brings people together across the political spectrum."
"The insurance industry has... been strongly opposed to parts of the legislation, and I think there's an obvious reason why. It is that I am an insurance reform hawk. I think the insurance model is about cherry picking. I think it's about taking healthy people and sending sick people over to government programs more fragile than they are. And what I do is I throw that insurance model in the trash can and I say that the companies can't discriminate against people with preexisting illnesses. There's very strong community rating. They compete on the basis of price, benefit and quality, not who's the best at scouring the rolls and filtering out anybody who's sick and sending them out to fend for themselves. So we've gotten a lot of flak from the insurance industry and I've got a lot of history on this. The toughest law that's on the books today is the Medigap law that governs the supplements sold to the elderly and I wrote it. And basically when I came to the Congress it was pretty common for a senior citizen to have a shoebox full of health insurance policies. A lot of them weren't worth the paper they were written on, and I went in and drained the swamp."
"I'm very much committed to working with them [Kennedy, Baucus and others leading the way]. Let's kind of break it down. If you take Chairman Baucus's white paper and the Healthy Americans Act, there are mostly areas of agreement, much of which we've talked about here. Insurance reform, covering everybody, personal responsibility, buying value. If you take the white paper and lay it on one side of the desk and you take the Healthy Americans Act and lay it on the other side of the desk, there's mostly agreement. In the areas where there's going to be debates are, for example, on the issue of how you allow everybody to keep the coverage they have, while at the same time being able to make other choices, choices I advocate like members of Congress, and benefit financially when they make a good selection. But if you take the Healthy Americans Act and Chairman Baucus's white paper and look at what Chairman Kennedy has said about health in the past, there are many more similarities."
"The next step we've finished now six sessions in the finance committee during this work period on coverage, delivery and finance and I think the next step is going to be working with the senators on the committee and others to pull together what I hope will be a bipartisan coalition. I think there is a real breakthrough opportunity here. I think that a lot of Republicans recognize that Democrats are right that you have to get all Americans good quality, affordable coverage to fix the system. Because if you don't have all Americans with that kind of coverage, there's too much cost shifting and not enough prevention. In other words, you can't begin to organize a market unless you cover everybody with good quality, affordable coverage. And then I think a lot of Democrats like me have said we think the Republicans have got some valid points too. We're willing to work with them."
"I think there is a better alternative [to the public option] that brings people together. And that is coverage at least as good as that held by members of Congress. And I don't want to sound like an old-days broken record, but I think there's a better, simpler consumer protection alternative. But if I don't prevail on that, then I'm going to look at the other ones."
"I think the other thing I think is a big plus for reformers is that it's clear that you cannot get this economy back on track unless you fix health care. Because the reason the take-home pay of a typical worker isn't going on is because medical costs are gobbling it all up. And you've got to contain the costs. In other words, I'm a strong supporter of climate change and Huffington can call me about climate change sometime. But you don't have the same immediate economic edge to the climate-change question that you have to holding down healthcare costs and fixing the system. And the President has really zeroed in on this theme and I talked to him yesterday and he's going to push very hard for healthcare reform to get it done this year."
"He made it clear he's going to push very hard this year, get it done this year." "I'm not going to talk about our conversation yesterday."
"I think it's possible to bring Democrats and Republicans in together to fix healthcare, hold down the costs, make sure people have choice and quality, and he laid out some of his key priorities in the campaign, getting to keep the coverage you have, protecting middle-class people from taxes and I'm very much committed to reform that honors those pledges."