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Let's Pass Ted Kennedy's Health Plan

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Let’s get a few things straight:   

  • Until last year, Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s health care bill (co-authored with with Rep. John Dingell) was a bill known as Medicare for All.   Not expensive private insurance for some, but Medicare [a public insurance plan] for All.
  • Senator Kennedy encouraged candidate and then President Obama to make health care for all his first priority -- during the campaign and as he took office. 
  • And Ted Kennedy remained in charge as his HELP (Health, Education and Labor and Pension) Committee wrote -- and then passed -- a new health care bill with a strong public insurance option for those who want it. 

I feel the need to remind people of all this because conservatives, and especially Republican Senators, are trying to promote the idea that if only Ted Kennedy were still actively involved in the health care reform effort, he could have gotten the Democrats to fold and embrace a weakened “bi-partisan” compromised health reform strategy.  And some are urging that the best tribute we could construct to the great man’s memory is to pass such a watered-down health bill that could win the support of a large number of conservative Republicans. 

Media Matters has done a good job of tracking and responding to the crocodile tears of Republicans, keying off of a Politico obituary that repeats the conservative spin that “without Kennedy, Democrats were less willing to make the concessions needed for true [health care] compromise.”  But whatever Politico’s role, their journalism certainly picked up on the boldly outrageous statements of important conservatives.  One by one, Media Matters’ quotes Republicans from Orin Hatch to John McCain, lamenting that Kennedy’s passing has deprived them all of a “reasonable” Democrat who would have won Republican votes by getting rid of the public plan or making the cost of “reform” dramatically smaller.

Let’s get another thing clear:    

  • Republicans don’t want a deal.  They want to kill health reform.

Democrats, especially a few in the Senate Finance committee, have for months been reaching out to Republicans with the hand of hopeful bi-partisanship.  And in recent months, conservative Republicans have made it clear that if Democrats (like Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus) are going to continue to reach out the hand of compromise, they are ready to bite it off.  

As cable television covered this weekend’s memorials to Ted Kennedy, when the talk got around to health care, there was almost always one pundit (usually one without much expertise about health care), who could be counted on to repeat the conservative talking points:  “It will take somebody with a liberal reputation like Teddy Kennedy to negotiate a deal with Republicans -- and convince the liberals to accept the compromise.”   

When someone occasionally reminds the discussants that even the Finance Committee Republicans, like Grassley and Enzi are refusing to make a deal -- as pollster Geoff Garin did in Sunday’s Washington Post -- one of these all-purpose pundits, like Cokie Roberts, quickly shift the arguments from Republicans to conservative Democrats.  Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter, who professes to personally support single-payer heath care, has regularly gone on MSNBC programs to tell liberals they need to give up on the public insurance option if they want to get the support of enough Democrats to pass health reform without Republican support.  The generic pundit argument is that liberals need to learn to compromise -- by cutting back the total cost of the package and ditching the public option in order to get the insurance reforms -- like requiring insurance companies to cover all applicants -- and the great step forward of requiring everyone to have insurance. 

Let’s get a few more things straight:

  • The public insurance option is consistently very popular in every poll, including the most recent ones, when you ask if people should have the option of choosing a public plan which competes with private insurance companies (which are very unpopular).
  • The public insurance option is popular even among the supporters of conservative Democrats.
  • The House will pass a very progressive health plan -- with a strong public option and enough funding to make health insurance affordable for most Americans.
  • Support for a public plan is growing, not shrinking, in the US Senate.  Most Democratic Senators, including members of the Finance Committee -- like Baucus (yes, see his White Paper), Bingaman, and two of the strongest supporters of the public option, Rockefeller and Schumer -- have already endorsed a strong public plan.  Additional Senators would not vote against it.  And Baucus and the rest of the Finance Committee Dems are about to acknowledge the reality that the Republicans have rejected bi-partisanship.  That means Democrats can pass a bill like Kennedy’s HELP bill.

OK, but aren’t conservative Democrats worried about the high cost of health reform -- and won’t they demand a smaller, cheaper bill?  And won’t they oppose a public plan?

Let’s get a few more things straight:

  • Individual mandates are the key demand of the insurance companies. Without that part of the deal, they will fiercely oppose the insurance reforms the pundits say are easy to pass -- the prohibitions against discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions, for example. 
  • But without subsidies that make insurance policies affordable – for middle class voters as well as the poor -- Democrats (even conservative Democrats) don’t want to require their voters to buy health insurance if those policies are not affordable.   Without that part of the package likely to disappear if the whole package is cut -- everybody involved in passing health reform will suffer voter backlash. 

Once fiscally responsible Democrats realize they don’t want to make large cuts in the size of the program, they start to understand that the public insurance option is their best tool for keeping the total costs of the program under control. 

Blue Dog Democrats in the House have already made a deal that accepts a pretty large health reform plan -- and a public option.  Senate Democrats are coming together around a health reform program that is big enough to do the job.  And they are embracing a public insurance plan that controls costs -- and keeps the private insurance industry honest. 

In other words, Democrats are coming together around the kind of health reform very much like Senator Ted Kennedy’s HELP bill. 

For more on health care, see Glenn Greenwald, or check out Institute for America's Future's latest report.