THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Countdown to Health Care: Crossing the Finish Line on the Public Option

In just a few short weeks, the public option has moved from afterthought to center stage. This happened because the American people made their voices heard and overwhelmed the insurance companies and special interests.

And although we're close to the finish line on health care, now is not the time to relent. There are still those who oppose a public option and will stand in the way of once-in-a-lifetime reform. The prelude is over. The real battle has begun.

Those who support the public option will prevail, but only if we follow the formula that got us here.

Left for dead a few weeks ago, there are four reasons why the public option will survive this intense fight, despite millions of dollars in insurance industry money pushing in the opposite direction.

First, we gave the American people direct access to Congress. Though polls have consistently shown that a majority of Americans support the public option, Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle treated the issue as a marginal part of the debate.

We were able to use the Internet to cut through the Washington apathy and reach the millions of Americans who support a public option. My site alone (www.CountdowntoHealthCare.com) amassed over 60,000 signatures for the public option. Hundreds of thousands more have joined Facebook groups or Twitter campaigns dedicated to a real public health care option
Using the Internet, those of us fighting for a public option were able to create a direct conduit to the halls of Congress. We opened up the process beyond the usual crowd of lobbyists and special interests, and turned an experiment in open government into results. We showed that a vocal minority with deep pockets can't overwhelm the will of the people.

Second, because we were able to make this debate truly public, it became about merits rather than insider politics. And when that happened, my Democratic colleagues recognized that the public option is the only solution to the main problem with our nation's health care system: costs.

We pay too much for health care, and, as a result, millions of Americans either can't choose the quality coverage they want, or can't afford health care at all. Millions more simply pay higher premiums each year, slowly eroding their financial stability.

The only way we can truly contain these skyrocketing costs is by providing real competition to an industry starved of it. A public option, with less overhead and free of the profit motive that plagues insurance companies, could do this.

Despite the merits of the argument and despite the public outcry, the minority opposing the public option has been loud and well-financed. A healthy dose of misinformation hasn't hurt, either.

But I commend my colleagues in the House and Senate who, undeterred, worked to deliver a public option to the American people. Speaker Pelosi never wavered, and insisted on the importance of a strong public option, even when she worried that she might not have the votes from some of my Democratic friends.

In the Senate, it took some creativity and determination, but they got it done. My predecessor in the House, Senator Chuck Schumer, first proposed the idea of an opt-out public option a few weeks ago, which would allow states to leave the program by 2014. It's an intriguing proposal, and one that I believe has real promise if we give the public option a chance to get up and running before governors can choose to pull the plug.

Despite the fact an Independent, a Republican and two Democratic Senators have reservations about a public option, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has refused to let the minority trample over the demands of an entire nation. He embraced the opt-out proposal as a central feature of the bill he plans to bring to the Senate floor.

Third, we used our majority the right way. Last year, Americans sent a clear signal when they gave Democrats a majority in order to deliver a "change" agenda. Health care is at the top of that list. Americans have suffered for too long under the burden of endlessly rising health care costs. Our job was to rise above the back and forth of politics and come up with a plan that could contain those costs.

That's what a majority is supposed to do.

Now we need a fourth and final element: the President. Back on September 9th, President Obama said he supported a public option, but insisted it was only one means to an end, and asked us to keep an open mind.

Now we need the president to stand up again and help push the public option past the finish line. Only he can provide the momentum we need to pass a bill. No voice is louder, no appeal more inspiring.

We're on the cusp of health care reform that includes a public option. This is further than the skeptics ever thought we would be, but there is still work to be done.

An unprecedented grassroots movement in favor of the public option, amplified by the Internet, has changed the nature of our political debate. But I worry that Congress may revert to old habits of political rhetoric and distraction.

We also know that the minority opposition will not rest until the President signs a bill. Senator Joseph Lieberman, an Independent, has said that he would filibuster the bill with Republicans. If the forces of obstruction will not rest, then neither can we.

Americans who want quality, affordable health care need to make their support for a public option heard. With their voices and, hopefully, one last nudge from the president, we have a chance to turn a long awaited dream into a reality.