07/26/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Introducing the Concept of Choice Into Our Health Care System

Public plan option. Three words in the health care reform process about which much has been said -- a lot of it meant to stoke fears. Amidst all of the mischaracterizations being thrown around, let's focus on the most important of those three words: Option.

As in choice.

As in something that isn't common for American families when it comes to their health care.

If your family has health coverage through your employer, that certainly brings some peace of mind. But there's still a good chance that only one insurance plan is available to you. If your premiums are high, if you can't choose the doctor you want or if your plan refuses to cover your pre-existing condition, there's little hope for improvement.

In recent health care reform listening sessions I held in New Jersey, a top complaint of families who already have health insurance is that their claims keep getting denied. Without any other real options available to them, even families that have health coverage are struggling to get affordable treatment.

Meanwhile, if you're not offered health coverage through work and don't qualify for Medicaid or Medicare, then you really have no health insurance choice at all. That's just not right.

Setting up a system in which more families have a real choice of health insurance would be tremendously empowering. We can shop around for our car insurance, property insurance and life insurance. Why should our choice be so limited when it comes to the most important insurance -- the one that protects our families' health?

Now, if your family is happy with your insurance as it is, you will continue to have it, even if there's also a public option. We have to be very clear about that. If you like what you have, you will keep it.

We're not against private insurance; we just want to make it more affordable. Let's not forget that between 2000 and 2007, the premiums for employer-based insurance rose five times faster than average incomes, and between 2008 and 2016, the premiums we pay are expected to rise more than 83 percent.

Choice in health care isn't just about allowing families to shop around. It's about making health care better through real competition for your business.

A public option would change the way insurers do business. It would keep them honest, in order to keep their customers. That means lower costs for everyone: for individuals, for families, for small businesses.

More options would get more people involved, bringing down the share of the cost burden any one family has to shoulder, and reducing the number of expensive emergency room visits that taxpayers have to pay for. In that sense it would promote not just public health care but public health. That's in everybody's interest.

If we do it right, I think we're going to see substantial savings from having expanded options -- savings for families and savings for our nation.

Amidst all the naysaying we've heard about health care reform, let's remember this basic truth about our nation's health care system and why we must reform it: Millions of Americans are prevented from accessing quality and affordable health care. It's not just the 47 million without health insurance. It's also millions more gainfully-employed Americans whose insurance just doesn't give them enough coverage, enough stability or enough peace of mind.

To hear some of my colleagues criticize bold ideas meant to expand and improve health care coverage, you'd think the current level, quality and expense of health care coverage is acceptable. You'd think that keeping insurance companies in charge of your health care rather than doctors is the way to go.

I know from my conversations with family after family that this just isn't so. It doesn't matter who you are or where your family lives -- if your child has a cough that won't go away, if your husband or wife has a swollen knee, or if you feel discomfort in your chest, you should never be put in the position where concerns about the cost of seeking medical treatment can affect the health of our loved ones.

The sooner we can fix health care, the sooner we can get our economy on a stronger footing, create American jobs that won't be shipped overseas, and help all our families rest a little easier.

The old saying goes, there is nothing more powerful on earth than an idea whose time has come.

With the right leadership in Congress, with President Obama on our side, and with the strong support of millions of Americans, we will make it absolutely clear, in the words we say, in the actions we take and the laws we make, that the time for health care reform has finally come.