For many Democrats, the benefits of a government-run health plan competing with private carriers in the individual and small group health insurance markets is simple: provide more choice to consumers and keep health insurance companies honest. Republicans and some moderate Democrats see the idea as the first giant step toward a government takeover of health care coverage fearing that a public plan would have an unfair advantage that would soon drive private carriers out of business. Both sides are gearing up for a tough and bruising battle over the issue. There will be many differences that will be hard to bridge during the health care reform debate. Whether the government should participate in the health insurance marketplace is, for now at least, the leading candidate to derail comprehensive reform.
Senate Kent Conrad, a Democrat from North Dakota, is seeking to prevent that from happening. According to the Associated Press, Senator Conrad is floating a compromise that would allow residents and small businesses in an area to crate non-profit health care cooperatives to offer health insurance. The idea is designed to appeal to Democrats based on the assumption that the co-ops would increase consumer choice and keep carriers honest. Because the co-ops would need to be self-supporting (the only government funding would be seed money designed to get them up and running) they would not have the unfair advantage against private health plans Republicans (and the insurance industry) fear.
The idea is getting a warm reception on Capital Hill. Senator Max Baucus, Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said “the idea could be key to a bipartisan health bill,” according to the Associated Press. The AP quoted the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, Senator Charles Grassley, as saying “It’s got possibilities.”
Details concerning Senator Conrad’s compromise still need to be worked out. As those details emerge the proposal may serve as common ground for lawmakers working toward a bipartisan reform package. But those details have to satisfy some wary legislators. Reuters, for example, notes Senator Grassley’s insistence that “”any federal money used to set up what likely would be state and regional health cooperatives would have to be in the form of loans and that the government should have no role in their operation.” Meanwhile CNN describes the initial concern of Democratic Senator Charles Schumer that “co-ops might struggle to compete with big health-insurance companies and therefore would not help drive down costs.” However, Senator Schumer also said “he would see if they could craft a workable plan.”
Similar cooperatives have been set up to provide electrical services in rural areas. Would the concept would nationally for health insurance? That’s uncertain. Would health insurance co-ops serve the needs of Democrats without fulfilling the fears of Republicans? Also uncertain.
In getting both sides to consider a middle way, however, Senator Conrad has made an important contribution to the health care reform effort.