Conrad tight-lipped on public-option stanceNorth Dakota’s senior senator — who’s been influential in the health care reform debate — refused to answer directly Wednesday whether he was willing to break party lines on the issue of a public health insurance option.
By: By Kristen Daum, The Forum, The Jamestown Sun
WASHINGTON — North Dakota’s senior senator — who’s been influential in the health care reform debate — refused to answer directly Wednesday whether he was willing to break party lines on the issue of a public health insurance option.
Conrad, a Democrat, joined his party’s majority in the Senate Finance Committee Wednesday to approve the latest health care reform proposal, which did not include the public option.
But the debate is far from over, since a proposal previously passed by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions does contain a so-called public option.
Democratic leaders will now meld the two committees’ proposals, so that a single bill can be brought to the Senate floor for a vote.
Conrad was a member of the Gang of Six, a bipartisan group of senators who crafted the proposal considered by the finance committee.
But in contrast to his fellow Democrats, Conrad has been outspoken about his opposition for a public health insurance option that’s tied to Medicare levels of reimbursement — instead, supporting regional health cooperatives.
“If our reimbursement through public option is tied to Medicare levels of reimbursement, it can’t be good for our state — it’s a mathematical certainty that that’s not good,” Conrad said Wednesday.
State and national Democratic leaders are advocating strongly for a public health insurance option and have urged Conrad to fall in line with the party.
Conrad said Wednesday he would not support a legislation that included a public option tied to Medicare reimbursements — but he declined to specifically say whether he was willing to break with his party over the issue.
“I’ve been as clear as I can be: I do not favor public options tied to Medicare levels of reimbursement,” he said. “I’m very hopeful that by taking this very clear position, we can prevent that from becoming an option.”
While Conrad won’t be directly involved in crafting the final Senate bill, he said he has been and expects to be consulted for input.
“I’m sure I’ll have a chance to be heard,” Conrad said.
Conrad said he opposes the public option because it would put North Dakotans at a disadvantage, since the state’s Medicare reimbursement levels are second-lowest in the nation. Medicare reimbursement levels are based on a number of factors including health care costs, so low-cost states like North Dakota would be hurt by a public option that’s tied to those levels.
“That would be a serious problem for North Dakota and I cannot support it,” Conrad said.
Meanwhile, liberal advocacy groups — such as MoveOn.org — plan to continue initiatives to push the public option in North Dakota.
MoveOn will host rallies today at Conrad’s offices in Fargo, Minot and Grand Forks — urging Conrad to “stop protecting the health insurance industry” and to support the public option in future Senate votes.
Conrad drew fire from the organization two weeks ago after voting against amendments that would have added the public option to the Senate Finance Committee bill.
National MoveOn Executive Director Justin Ruben said Conrad’s regional cooperative option would not provide the necessary reform to health care that a public option could, and condemned the finance committee’s bill for not tackling the issue.
“The bottom line is we need a public option that’s big enough and that’s structured so that it has the power to bargain and provide true competition for the insurance companies and keep costs down,” Ruben said. “Co-ops won’t do that.”
Conrad rejected MoveOn’s claim that he’s protecting health insurance industries, saying he seeks to protect North Dakotans.
“(MoveOn leaders) don’t have to be responsible for the results for our state. I do,” Conrad said. “My job is to protect North Dakota, and I feel I have a very serious responsibility to the state that elected me.”
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