WASHINGTON (AP) _ Democrats sought to give government the right to sell insurance in competition with private industry Tuesday as the Senate Finance Committee opened a second week of debate over massive health care legislation.
"We need this option because the insurance companies have failed to meet their obligation" to the public, said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., accusing firms of putting profits over their customers.
He said that without his proposal, consumers would face substantial premium increases once health care legislation takes effect.
Republicans countered that private companies would eventually be forced out of business, and argued that millions would be forced to get their insurance from the government.
"Washington is not the answer," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
Rockfeller's proposal, and a second one drafted by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., faced uncertain prospects as the committee debated legislation that generally fell along lines outlined by President Barack Obama.
While Democrats hold a majority on the committee, the legislation advanced by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., omitted the so-called public option. Moderate Democrats on and off the committee oppose it, and Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, the Republican seen as most likely to support the bill, has also spoken against it.
Under Rockefeller's proposal, payments to doctors, hospitals and other health care providers would be based on Medicare fees. Schumer's proposal called for negotiations to set the rates.
Two liberal groups are launching a hard-hitting television and Internet ad targeting Baucus that features a young father from Montana. Bing Perrine, 26, in need of a heart operation, uninsured and deeply in debt, looks straight into the camera and asks Baucus, "Whose side are you on?"
The ad is sponsored by Democracy for America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, who say Baucus is too cozy with insurance and health care interests that have contributed to his campaigns and oppose the public option.
"The public option is the only true way we can keep it fair," Perrine said in an interview. The insurance industry says it couldn't compete with the price-setting power of government.
Baucus aide Tyler Matsdorf said the ad falsely implies that Baucus doesn't care about the plight of people with pre-existing health problems. It's just that Baucus would address such problems in a different way from what the liberals want, Matsdorf said.
For example, the Baucus plan would bar private insurers from denying coverage for pre-existing health problems and create nonprofit co-ops to compete with the industry. Matsdorf said that would achieve the same result public plan supporters are seeking and "prevent (Perrine's) situation from ever happening again."
Such arguments don't seem to be convincing liberals. Another group, Health Care for America Now, is circulating a Sept. 23 letter to Baucus from local Democratic Party leaders in Montana, which is raising more questions from the left about the senator's position on the public plan. The letter summarizes an August telephone call between Baucus and the Democratic leaders, and quotes the senator as saying, "I want a public option, too."
"We need you to say the same thing in Washington," the local Democrats wrote.
Matsdorf responded that the senator included a government option in his original health care blueprint issued last November. Since then, Baucus has realized that a public plan doesn't have enough support to clear the Senate. "Health care reform isn't just about what Senator Baucus wants," said Matsdorf. "It is about crafting a bill that can get 60 votes in the Senate."