Baucus Watch, Part VII

Does he or doesn’t he support a public plan?

As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Senator Max Baucus holds the keys to health-care reform; any health-care legislation must pass through his committee. So what he says or doesn’t say is important to those following the twists and turns of the congressional effort to fix our health-care system. This is the seventh of an occasional series of posts on the senator’s pronouncements and how the media has covered them. The entire series is archived here.

A major flashpoint in health reform will be the creation of a public plan—a Medicare-like option—for people who would be mandated to buy their own insurance in the individual market. The idea is to give them the option of what will probably be cheaper and better coverage than they can buy from the likes of Aetna and Blue Cross. Insurance companies know that, which is why they are adamantly opposed to any health reform package including such an option. Call it turf protection.

Do they or don’t they have an ally in Sen. Max Baucus, who has maintained that everything except a single payer system is on the table? Baucus listens to a lot of lobbyists, and his white paper from last fall reflects that. Baucus recently told Time’s Karen Tumulty that he considered a public option a bargaining chip to force insurance companies into other reforms, like dropping restrictions on preexisting conditions and selling policies to everyone, sick or well. In other words, the chip would move them toward “market reforms” that bring more people into the insurance fold. Market reform has been a perennial favorite for reforming health care.

On Friday, a post at a ThinkProgress’s The Wonk Room blog noted former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s belief that simple market reforms wouldn’t lead to real reform. Something stronger like a public plan option was necessary. The post then displayed a YouTube video of Baucus speaking at a recent Center for American Progress Action Fund event.* There was Baucus saying:

Let’s see what we come up with. I think we can accomplish the objective he wants without it. I think we can. We’re going to have to work on it. But we may have to have it. He [Dean] may be right. Just don’t know yet.

He’ll surely have to square the circle on that one. That’s Baucus again, offering something for everyone. Public plan, no. Public plan, yes. He may have tipped his hand, however, when he talked about a bargaining chip. Best to keep an eye on that one.

Correction: Due to an editing error, the original version of this story said that a YouTube video featured at ThinkProgress’s Wonk Room blog showed Max Baucus speaking at an event sponsored by the Center for American Progress. The event was actually sponsored by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Return to the corrected sentence.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.