08/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Health Care Reform: Why We Need a Public Option

Whenever I hear Congressional opponents of health care reform attempt to scare the public by warning of "socialized medicine," I want to laugh. Aren't these the same fear-mongers who, as they deceived us into the Iraq War, warned us of "weapons of mass destruction?" They try to scare us with words. Frightening Americans into accepting policies that are against our own best interests has become the modus operandi of far too many politicians--and it has worked far too long. Not this time, though. Change came to the White House in January and health care reform is on the agenda.

The same politicians who claim that we cannot afford health care reform because the deficit is too high--are the ones who didn't worry about exploding the deficit when they enabled George W. Bush to borrow money for his war, plunging us into record-breaking debt in the process. While they had no trouble blowing-up the deficit and paying exorbitant fees (no questions asked) to independent contractors like Blackwater and Halliburton, these same elected officials do not want to spend money to provide affordable health care for all Americans. They seem to have forgotten that they were elected to Congress to protect and defend the American people--not just their own political careers.

We all know that some members of Congress--especially members of the House who must finance political campaigns every two years and those from states, like Nebraska, where insurance companies are major industries--are beholden to insurance companies for campaign contributions. In exchange for the contributions, the Representatives or Senators look out for the interests of the insurance companies. The result is that the American people, small businesses, and corporations pay the price for this quid quo pro with higher premiums, higher co-pay and higher out-of-pocket costs as insurers pay less and less to health care providers.

During the presidential campaign, late one night after I left the Obama headquarters in Center City Philadelphia, I took a cab home. The cab driver told me about two insurance executives he'd had in his cab one night--and asked me not to repeat the story. (I beg his pardon for telling it now publicly.) The executives, from two different insurance companies, were talking about how their companies had sent contributions to the Obama campaign--repeatedly, increasing the amounts each time--only to have the contributions returned to them each time.

The executives were concerned, "We don't know what will happen if Obama gets in," one of them said. The other executive agreed, "Usually they [politicians] just take the money and that's the end of it--we don't have to worry--but with this guy--we've never seen anything like it."

We need a public option in order to keep the private insurers honest. A public option epitomizes the value of competition on which capitalism is based; indeed, a public option is the antithesis of socialized medicine. Good old American competition! With a low-cost, affordable public option, consumers of health care insurance can shop around for the best plan. No one will be forced to take the public plan, but it will be available for those who choose it--and they will be able to afford it. The argument against a public option is that, because it is more affordable, people with private insurance might drop their private plan and switch to the public plan to save money, which threatens private insurers' profits.

In that case, the private insurers can do what enterprising capitalists have always done--compete--lower their costs to remain competitive. Imagine what would happen if the owner of an NFL team said, "Well, I'm not going to sign that great running back because he's a threat to other teams in our division--the other teams might lose to us if we sign him." The idea we should forego a public option because it might induce private insurers to adjust and compete is ridiculous. Are the opponents of the public plan representing the American people or the insurance industry?

Politicians might need financial contributions in order to run for office, but without the people they represent--the voters--they will not be re-elected no matter how generous the contributions from insurance companies. We voters have a responsibility, too; we must do our part. In order to evaluate the information given to us by members of Congress, we must go online and see who has funded them.

It's a cliche, but knowledge is power and at this critical and challenging time in our nation's history, each American needs to empower him or herself with knowledge--and make our voices heard to our representatives. If we allow them to deceive us--they will. Let's not forget the Iraq War and the de-regulation of the financial industry--we, the People, allowed these disasters to happen because we weren't paying attention.

The health and viability of our individual families and our collective national family are at stake. If our government cannot provide the American people with affordable health care, we will devolve into a third-rate power. In order to compete in the global economy, we need a healthy populace. We are the only country in the industrialized world that does not provide health care for its citizens. How can we lead from behind? We cannot afford NOT to reform our health care system. We need an affordable public option.