11/10/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Reid Muddies Health Care Waters With Co-Op Talk

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) caused some confusion on Capitol Hill Thursday when he described an elaborate hypothetical situation in which he could accept health care cooperatives as an alternative to a public health insurance option.

The co-op talk came at the tail end of the conference, while he was attempting to distinguish between the public option and the cooperative model.

"The purpose of a public option is to create competition, which is so important, and to create quality health care," Reid said. "If we can come up with a concept of a cooperative that does just that, that is it makes more competition and makes insurance companies honest, yes, I think that would fill the bill."

That's a big if, but coming shortly after President Obama told Congress Wednesday night that a public option remains a negotiable element of health care reform, Reid's comments raised alarm bells. Many advocates of a public option see co-ops as an insurance industry ruse to kill government-run insurance.

The support for the co-op overshadowed Reid's positive comments about the public option earlier at the briefing.

"We have a very firm, strong public option in the HELP bill," Reid said, referring to the reform bill passed by the Senate health committee in July. "I favor a public option."

Reid still sees the public option as the best way to accomplish his stated reform goals, spokesman Jim Manley said. "Senator Reid continues to support a public option," Manley wrote in an e-mail. "As the president himself has suggested, the real need is to set up a program that will create competition, drive health care prices down and put the brakes on out of control insurance companies."

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), whose legislative draft includes the co-op model, was quick to compare his reform priorities to those of Obama when talking to reporters Thursday morning. His draft does not, however, pass muster with powerful Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who ranks high on the finance committee.

"Baucus' proposal does not meet my three criteria, I will say that," Schumer told reporters Thursday afternoon, adding that his priority is the immediate roll-out of a public option, a plan that can be purchased by all Americans and is competitive enough to lower insurance costs systemwide.

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