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Top Democrats jump-start push to offer a health care 'public option,' a Biden promise

Rep. Frank Pallone and Sen. Patty Murray are trying to craft a government-provided insurance option to compete with private plans and extend coverage.
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WASHINGTON — Two Democratic committee chairs overseeing health care policy are seeking to jump-start a legislative push to craft a "public option" to compete with private insurers.

House Energy and Commerce Chair Frank Pallone, D-N.J., and Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., wrote a letter to interested parties Wednesday seeking their input by July 31 on how to structure a government-provided plan.

"We believe bold steps are necessary in order to achieve universal coverage and lower health care costs," they wrote. "Health care affordability remains a challenge for many American families despite the fact that the United States spends more on health care than any other country."

Pallone and Murray touted the Affordable Care Act's successes at extending coverage but noted that "tens of millions of Americans still remain uninsured or underinsured."

A "public option" was one of President Joe Biden's campaign promises, billed as a moderate alternative to rival Bernie Sanders' plan to scrap private coverage and put all Americans in Medicare. But Biden has not included the policy in his economic rescue and stimulus proposals so far, instead seeking to infuse cash in the ACA exchanges and invest in Covid-19 vaccines.

But the Democrats are signaling it is still a priority, and aim to introduce a bill by the end of this year, a Murray aide said.

It will be a daunting task for Democrats, who have paper-thin margins in Congress and not much hope of winning Republican support. They are likely to face an assault from health industry groups, including insurers who won't want to compete with the government, as well as doctors and hospitals who would complain about likely reductions in reimbursement rates.

In their letter, Murray and Pallone requested information that would help them on the design and scope of the legislation, including whether the federal public option should be made available to all individuals or more targeted.

And in a statement, they cited a recent Morning Consult/Politico poll that shows 68 percent of Americans favor a public option, "where people can choose from a government-run health program or private insurance."

Recently, Democrats have offered competing bills for a public option, which was considered in the 2010 Affordable Care Act legislation and dropped after some party defections.

Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Tim Kaine, D-Va., introduced the Medicare-X Choice Act, which would set up a Medicare-style public option. And Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio., introduced the CHOICE Act to add a public option to the Affordable Care Act.