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Point/Counterpoint:
Health Care: The Public Option
PRO: It will control costs

Guest Viewpoint: Curt Thompson

Then-senators Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Christopher Dodd and others repeated one campaign promise in debate after debate: "Affordable access to the same good health care coverage enjoyed by U.S. Senators." I knocked on doors for Obama-Biden in Georgia and South Carolina and found that a key selling point for the Democratic ticket was health care reform that would ensure universal access to first-class, secured health insurance at a fair price.

The battle for health care reform now rages over this campaign promise - the "public option," a not-for-profit, nationwide, public insurance plan that anyone can join.

We need a public option plan because we need the coverage. According to the most recent health statistics published by the U.S. Census Bureau, there are nearly 16 million underinsured and 47 million uninsured individuals in the U.S. Beyond the under and uninsured, ever rising insurance premiums presents serious challenges to the self-employed and small business owners, and the health coverage most people have seems adequate only until they actually need it.

When people do need it, it all but evaporates with co-pays, exclusions, pre-existing conditions, lifetime limits, uncovered fees and unexplained rejected claims. There is a reason health care costs are the No. 1 cause of personal bankruptcy: most of us lack coverage that truly covers.

A public option plan can utilize advantages that private insurance plans do not. The public option does not need the costly measures used by insurance companies to reject claims, deny care, discourage preventative care, and cherry pick customers to improve their bottom line. Therefore, it can operate administratively at only a fraction of the cost of for-profit plans.

These advantages have been proven to be valuable in the real world by Medicare, a not-for-profit, national health insurance plan for seniors. Even more important, the opportunity to shift to a preventative based health care system has the long term potential for huge savings.

In spite of the obvious merits of a public option plan, it faces stiff opposition in Washington. Insurance companies, some of the biggest campaign contributors, are fighting hard because the public option plan would create competition for them.

Republican opposition is hardly surprising given the strength of the insurance, medical provider and pharmaceutical lobbies, but opposition from Democrats who promised a public option while campaigning for our votes is unfathomable. Declarations of coming reform on the campaign trail were supposed to be declarations against the strength of lobbyists in Washington. Compromising on the public option is not an option. Any plan that doesn't include it is merely window dressing. Without the public option, there'll be no real reform and no real pressure on private insurers to keep down health care costs while bettering coverage.

I know there is no umpire keeping watch over elected officials to blow a whistle when he or she breaks campaign promises. Likewise, there is no "politician's statute of limitations" that absolves a U.S. senator or president from living up to a campaign promise after the election. Nevertheless, we voted for access to the health care coverage they enjoy.

We voted for a public option, and we knew what we were doing. Washington should have faith that Americans know what is good for our families and ourselves. Demonstrate that our votes count. Deliver on the promise of quality affordable health care coverage that can never be taken away: the public option.

Curt Thompson is a state senator from Tucker.

SideBar: CON: Private market would die

Guest Viewpoint: John Oxendine

Our politicians in Washington are making momentous decisions about your health care that will impact your daily lives and set the course for our country for decades to come. Your voice needs to be heard.

As Georgia Insurance Commissioner, I have closely followed the debate about the plans for the government takeover of the U.S. health care system proposed by President Barack Obama and Congress.

Their proposal would virtually devastate the private health care sector in this country along with competition and patient choice, by replacing it with bureaucratic planning and government control. The result of this plan and its $1 trillion price tag will bring harm to those the president and Congress are ostensibly trying to help.

In a twist of logic that would put a contortionist to shame, the president and other proponents of this big government scheme argue that a public option (or in other words a government-run) plan is necessary to apply competitive pressure to private sector participants. What they fail to acknowledge is that once established, this federally subsidized, government-run public plan will squeeze out private sector companies resulting in a health care monopoly run by Washington.

Any potential initial cost savings will soon give way to a bloated and wasteful federal bureaucracy with the efficiency of the INS and the heart of the IRS. Any remaining attempts to hold down cost will come by restricting patient access and choice. Those hardest hit by this government rationing will be our senior population. The hollow promise made by those in Washington that if you like your current insurance you can keep it will soon be forgotten when the private health insurance market is gone.

There is an artificial sense of urgency in Washington created by politicians who want to use the recession as an excuse to fundamentally alter the free market economic foundation of our country. Yes, the number of uninsured is too high, but the number seen in the press includes illegal immigrants, the "young and invincible" population that is financially able yet chooses not to purchase insurance, individuals in transition between jobs, and those who are eligible but have chosen not to receive assistance.

Many consider our country's health care system to be the envy of the world. However, there are aspects about the system that need to be fixed. We need a serious debate, and that debate needs to include topics such as tort reform, tax incentives and individual policy portability. At the end of this debate, individuals need to be in charge of their health care, and we do not need a government bureaucrat between them and their doctor.

Our politicians in Washington need to take a deep breath and listen. Your voice needs to be heard.

John Oxendine is the Georgia Insurance Commissioner.