After weeks of uncertainty, the top Senate Democrat announced this afternoon that he wants to include a government-run option as part of the health care overhaul, though it's not clear he has the votes to get it through the Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said at a news conference that he favors the contentious public option, which is included in the versions passed by the Senate health committee and three House panels but not the one from the Senate Finance Committee, according to several media organizations.
"While the public option is not a silver bullet, I believe it's an important way to ensure competition and to level the playing field for patients with the insurance industry," Reid said.
Reid threw his support behind a version that would allow states to opt out of offering government-run coverage to compete with private insurers. Under his proposal, states would have until 2014 to do so.
"Under this concept, states will be able to determine whether the public option works well for them and will have the ability to opt out, if they so choose," Reid said. "I believe that a public option can achieve the goal of bringing meaningful reform to our broken system. It will protect consumers, keep insurers honest and ensure competition."
But the opt-out will not please liberal Democrats, who say the public option should be available nationwide and is essential to keeping the insurance industry honest.
President Obama has said he prefers a public option, but is not demanding it as part of a bill he could sign.
Reid said the bill that goes to the Senate floor will also include a provision for nonprofit co-ops as another option for affordable coverage.
He said he is sending his proposal -- which combines elements of the Senate Finance and Senate health bills -- to the Congressional Budget Office for an analysis of how much it would cost. He and Obama are aiming for a plan that comes in at $900 billion over 10 years or less.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs issued a statement on Obama's behalf congratulating Reid, Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, and Senate Christopher Dodd, who shepherded the health committee bill.
“Thanks to their efforts, we’re closer than we’ve ever been to solving this decades-old problem," Gibbs said. "And while much work remains, the President is pleased that at the progress that Congress has made. He’s also pleased that the Senate has decided to include a public option for health coverage, in this case with an allowance for states to opt out. As he said to Congress and the nation in September, he supports the public option because it has the potential to play an essential role in holding insurance companies accountable through choice and competition.”
Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, a Finance Committee member, also applauded Reid for including a public option.
“This is big news, and it’s very good news. Majority Leader Reid is taking the gutsy and appropriate road in fighting for the right policy, something the American people want and an issue on which every Senator should be held accountable," Kerry said in a statement.
"That’s why I voted for it in the Finance Committee and why I’ve advocated for it since day one. Leader Reid has laid out a plan that is reasonable and fair and will help achieve quality, affordable healthcare for all Americans. Ted Kennedy once told me there were many ways to arrive at health care reform, and he always knew that the first step was in finding every possible avenue to fight for the best policy. That’s the tradition the Majority Leader is carrying on today.”
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Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.