Speaking at a town hall in Green Bay Wisconsin, President Barack Obama addressed head on what is the hot debate of the day: whether a health reform overhaul should include a public option for health insurance.
"I also strongly believe that one of the options in the exchange should be a public insurance option," Obama declared, in what was one of his most forceful statements of support since the health care debate began. "And the reason is not because we want a government takeover of health care. I've already said, if you've got a private plan that works for you, that's great. But we want some competition. If the private insurance companies have to compete with a public option, it will keep them honest and it will help keep their prices down."
The remarks came just several hours after the American Medical Association said it would oppose a public option for coverage. But in a reflection of just how delicate this debate has become, the 250,000 member physician group largely backtracked from its opposition later in the day.
"Make no mistake: health reform that covers the uninsured is AMA's top priority this year," a clarifying statement from the group read. "Every American deserves affordable, high-quality health care coverage.
"Today's New York Times story creates a false impression about the AMA's position on a public plan option in health care reform legislation. The AMA opposes any public plan that forces physicians to participate, expands the fiscally-challenged Medicare program or pays Medicare rates, but the AMA is willing to consider other variations of the public plan that are currently under discussion in Congress. This includes a federally chartered co-op health plan or a level playing field option for all plans. The AMA is working to achieve meaningful health reform this year and is ready to stand behind legislation that includes coverage options that work for patients and physicians."
While not directly addressing AMA's position on the public plan, the president did offer what seemed to be a subtle dig at the group's seemingly conflicting objectives. AMA's mission has been health care coverage for all, but it has also opposed every major attempt at a systematic overhaul since the FDR administration.
"Doctors didn't get into the medical profession to be bean counters or paper pushers," Obama said in his early remarks, underscoring the bureaucratic problems that exists in the status quo. "They are not interested in spending all their time acting like lawyers or business executives."
Later in the question and answer session, Obama directly addressed the political component of the debate over the public option, gently calling out critiques for misrepresenting the plan's objectives.
"Now, how this debate is evolving in Washington, unfortunately sometimes kinds of falls into the usual politics, right?" the President said. "So, what you've heard is some folks on the other side saying, I'm opposed to a public option because that's going to lead to government running your health care system. Now, I don't know how clearly I can say this, but let me try to repeat it. If you've got health insurance that you're happy with through the private sector, then we're not going to force you to do anything. All we're saying is for the 46 million people who don't have health insurance or for people who have got health insurance like you... let's change some of those incentives so that we get more people getting prevention, more people getting health care to keep them healthy as opposed to just treating them when they get sick. And I think that we can come up with a sensible, commonsense way that's not disruptive, that still has room for insurance companies and the private sector, but that does not put people in the position where they are potentially bankrupt every time they get sick."
The ability of the president to elevate himself above the usual political scrum proved monumentally valuable during the course of the campaign. His appearance at Green Bay on Thursday suggests that the Obama White House thinks it can apply this formula to the health care reform debate. The friendlier turf, they believe, is outside Washington.