Public option appears dead, but health care still alive, lawmakers say

WASHINGTON (NNPA)—Despite grave concerns that President Obama’s plans for health care might have been killed by the election of Republican Scott Brown to fill the former Senate seat of the late Ted Kennedy, leading members of the Congressional Black Caucus say the bill is still very much alive.

“No it’s not dead. It’s not dead at all,” said U.S. Rep. Donna Christensen, D-V.I. in an interview with the NNPA News Service. Christensen, a medical doctor, is chair of the CBC Health Braintrust and has been among the leading voices on health care.

Donna Christensen, James Clyburn

“The House, Senate and White House have been meeting this past week and they’ve come up with some areas where they’ve brought the two bills together and they’ve reached an agreement and they’re both in the process of selling it to their membership,” she said.

The Senate and House bills, which are vastly different, must be reconciled before a final version is passed by both Houses. That will likely happen without the inclusion of the desired “public option” that the Congressional Black Caucus and Black organizational leaders pressed for.

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., says he too is optimistic that some form of the bill will pass, largely because of the conditions of health care in America. “Health care reform isn’t dead,” he said in a statement last week. “Our current system is unacceptable and not sustainable, and Democrats won’t give up on reforming it,” Clyburn said. “I am confident we will pass some form of meaningful health care reform.”

Clyburn continued, hitting on the core issues of health care: “We can’t allow abused women to continue to be denied coverage because an insurance company has deemed domestic violence to be a pre-existing condition, or a worker to lose health coverage because they are diagnosed with cancer or some other catastrophic illness. We won’t stand by and allow rising health care costs to prevent employers from raising salaries or hiring more workers. And we won’t be bullied by reform opponents, funded by the insurance industry, into failing in our efforts to provide a health care delivery system that saves lives, money, jobs and Medicare.”

President Obama, set to give his first State of the Union Address Jan. 27, was expected to bring clarity on the new negotiations. Despite the positive outlook the bill appears to be at an impasse. Last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that she could not get enough votes to pass the Senate version of the bill which does not have the public option that House Democrats—especially CBC members—want. The public option was especially important to CBC members because it would have made health care plans easier and better quality for the poor.

Complicating matters, the election of Republican Scott Brown to fill the Massachusetts Senate seat of chief health care proponent the late Ted Kennedy, has killed the 60-40 filibuster-proof majority that the Democrats once held. Brown defeated Democrat Martha Coakley Jan. 19.

Christensen, just before speaking to the Black publishers of the National Newspaper Publishers Association at its Mid-Winter Conference last week, explained that the Senate bill is just not strong enough.

“We totally reject the Senate bill because our bill in most places and in most instances is stronger. It’s stronger in many areas and particularly and directly impacts the African-American community and other communities of color, poor communities and rural communities.”

She concedes that the public option is likely dead for now and that a final bill will not likely have it.

“It does not have the public option as we envisioned it, no,” she said. “We still hope that at some point, a public option will be something that we can see become a reality and we’re not going to give up on that. As things stand now, there are a lot of things that every side is going to have to give in on.”

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