After All The Fuss, Public Health Covers Few
(AP Photo/Dino Vournas) Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, speaks about healthcare reform at a press conference at Chinese Hospital, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2009 in San Francisco.
RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR | The Associated Press via YellowBrix
November 02, 2009
WASHINGTON (AP) – What’s all the fuss about? After all the noise over Democrats’ push for a government insurance plan to compete with private carriers, coverage numbers are finally in: Two percent.
That’s the estimated share of Americans younger than 65 who’d sign up for the public option plan under the health care bill that Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is steering toward House approval.
The underwhelming statistic is raising questions about whether the government plan will be the iron-fisted competitor that private insurers warn will shut them down or a niche operator that becomes a haven for patients with health insurance horror stories.
Some experts are wondering if lawmakers have wasted too much time arguing about the public plan, giving short shrift to basics such as ensuring that new coverage will be affordable.
“The public option is a significant issue, but its place in the debate is completely out of proportion to its actual importance to consumers,” said Drew Altman, president of the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. “It has sucked all the oxygen out of the room and diverted attention from bread-and-butter consumer issues, such as affordable coverage and comprehensive benefits.”
The Democratic health care bills would extend coverage to the uninsured by providing government help with premiums and prohibiting insurers from excluding people in poor health or charging them more. But to keep from piling more on the federal deficit, most of the uninsured will have to wait until 2013 for help. Even then, many will have to pay a significant share of their own health care costs.
The latest look at the public option comes from the Congressional Budget Office, the nonpartisan economic analysts for lawmakers.
It found that the scaled back government plan in the House bill wouldn’t overtake private health insurance. To the contrary, it might help the insurers a little.
The budget office estimated that about 6 million people would sign up for the public option in 2019, when the House bill is fully phased in. That represents about 2 percent of a total of 282 million Americans under age 65. (Older people are covered through Medicare.)
The overwhelming majority of the population would remain in private health insurance plans sponsored by employers. Others, mainly low-income people, would be covered through an expanded Medicaid program.
To be fair, most people would not have access to the new public plan. Under the House bill, it would be offered through new insurance exchanges open only to those who buy coverage on their own or work for small companies. Yet even within that pool of 30 million people, only 1-in-5 would take the public option.