Obama defends public option for healthcare

The president criticized those who say getting government in healthcare would harm private insurers

By Alex Koppelman

Published June 23, 2009 6:15PM (EDT)

It's always good when you can turn your opponents' arguments against them. That's what President Obama did in his Tuesday press conference, shoving a free market argument down the throats of people who've been arguing for a free market approach to healthcare reform.

Asked about the possibility of a public option for insurance -- that is, insurance provided by the government for a fee -- and concerns that such a plan would seriously harm private insurers, Obama responded:

Why would it drive private insurance out of business? If -- if private -- if private insurers say that the marketplace provides the best quality health care; if they tell us that they're offering a good deal, then why is it that the government, which they say can't run anything, suddenly is going to drive them out of business? That's not logical ....

But just conceptually, the notion that all these insurance companies who say they're giving consumers the best possible deal, if they can't compete against a public plan as one option, with consumers making the decision what's the best deal, that defies logic ...

I think that there is a legitimate concern, if the public plan was simply eating off the taxpayer trough, that it would be hard for private insurers to compete. If, on the other hand, the public plan is structured in such a way where they've got to collect premiums and they've got to provide good services, then, if what the insurance companies are saying is true, that they're doing their best to serve their customers, that they're in the business of keeping people well and giving them security when they get sick, they should be able to compete.

Not everything Obama did in talking about healthcare reform was quite so smooth, however. Questioned about an earlier promise that no one who was happy with their current insurance provided by their employer and wanted to keep it would be forced to switch, Obama had to concede that wasn't really true. As Obama admitted, if the public option is cheaper for employers, some will switch, and not allow their workers to keep their current plan. "What I'm saying," Obama told the gathered reporters, "is the government is not going to make you change plans."

The president further defended himself by pointing out that as health care costs continue to rise, employers will most likely switch insurance providers anyway, even without reform. That's true, but it still amounted to walking back his earlier promise.

Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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