09/27/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

It's The Health Insurance Lobby, Stupid!

Would a mere $2,154,200 change how you voted on the health care reform bill? If that's not quite enough, would $3,973,485 or $8,994,077 be more to your liking? Ask Senators Kent Conrad, Max Baucus and John Kerry. These multi-million dollar sums represent total donations from the health insurance industry and other groups opposed to real health care reform to the campaigns of these senators.

Significant contributions like these could kill the best chance our country has for real health care reform. The health insurance lobby certainly hopes so.

Our country will have a health insurance bill this year. Despite the angry town halls and the 'death panels', President Obama and the Democratic congress have enough momentum to pass a bill providing health care coverage for all or most Americans. But they need to pass the right bill.

Only a bill with a government option will provide meaningful health care reform. The government option is not only preferred by large numbers of Americans--as many as 20 to 30 million people, by some estimates. More importantly, the federal government is the only entity big enough to inject real competition into the health insurance market. Are you paying too much for your insurance premiums? Are you tired of a policy that only pays for 80% of your care, sticking you with 20% of the cost? Does it drive you mad that every year you pay higher co-pays for the same prescription drugs? In a country (ours) in which 94% of the health insurance markets are not competitive, according to the American Medical Association, insurance companies can continue to charge us more for health care while increasing their own profits. That's why there are some really busy health insurance lobbyists in DC these days.

Not only is the health insurance lobby giving large donations to our elected officials, they may also be behind the angry mobs protesting at town hall meetings and obsessed with fictional 'death panels'. The untruths these town halls are spreading could derail progress for real health care reform. Short-circuiting the public option benefits the health insurance industry, but not the rest of us.

Why is the public option really the antidote to all of this? According to David Borris, owner of a catering company in Chicago and executive committee member of the Main Street Alliance, an organization for small business owners, "We need an entity as big and strong as the US government to keep insurance companies honest." With little or no outside competition, the health insurance industry can keep premiums high and manipulate the market so that we consumers have very few low-cost options. A health insurance bill with a public option would inject a different type of competition into a market where insurance companies monopolize the cost of health care, adding to the enormous costs that we all pay. "We believe that the establishment of a transparent insurance exchange with a strong public plan will increase transparency and provide the competition necessary to force insurance companies to bring premiums down," said Mr. Borris.

Insurance companies currently thrive on the kind of complexity and multiplicity that prevents many people from really knowing what kind of care is covered in their policies. A transparent exchange with multiple insurers offering a limited number of insurance options in clear language would provide the ideal antidote to the current confusing set of choices most people face. For example, some policies may say that the policy-holder can choose any doctor, but the fine print gives far more limited choices. Transparency would eliminate the 'fine print'.

The exchange would provide everyone with clear and simple choices- whether in private or public plans-- so all Americans make a rational, fair and honest choices.

It's unlikely that Senators receiving large campaign contributions from such a powerful lobby can clearly grasp the benefit of a public option. With the passing last night of our country's most prominent universal health care champion, Senator Edward Kennedy, proponents of a public option will need to work even harder to have their voices heard. The US Senate needs to just say no to the health insurance lobby, and get on with the business of real health care reform.