July 30, 2009

Why a Public Option Matters in Health Care Reform


FEW THINGS are as important in every family’s life as good health care. Knowing that when you get sick, you can see a doctor; that when your child needs a checkup, she or he can too; that if something goes wrong, you’ll have the very best care; and that the bills won’t force you into bankruptcy or out of your home. All of this is vital, not only to physical health, but to peace of mind.

Many in America have this kind of health care. But too many don’t.

Rhode Islanders have shared their stories with me about how the health-care system has failed them. They’re going without health insurance because it costs too much, or because they have a pre-existing condition and private insurance is out of reach. They’re fighting to keep the coverage they have, battling claims denials and insurance-company bureaucrats who seem to care more about the company’s bottom line than a customer’s health. They fall ill or are injured, and costs pile up until they become simply too great to bear. They’re taking it day by day, hoping things don’t get worse.

It shouldn’t be this way. That’s why, for the last several weeks, I have been working with my fellow members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, including my senior colleague, Jack Reed, on new legislation to make sure every American has access to affordable, high-quality health care, and to reduce the overwhelming costs of our current system. It’s a big goal, and it won’t be easy to reach. But we’re confident that with the landmark bill our committee has passed, we’re on the right track.

In particular, the bill puts unprecedented focus on improving our quality of care in ways that reduce costs, and on preventing illness so as to avoid unnecessary hospitalizations. This effort, supported by our previous investment in improved health-information technology, positions the health-care system to achieve larger savings that are an ultimate promise of health-care reform.

When President Obama spoke about health-care reform a few weeks ago, he made a very important promise: If you like the health-care coverage you have now, you’ll be able to keep it. But for the many Rhode Islanders who don’t have health insurance, or whose coverage isn’t meeting their needs, we offer a new choice: a clear, straightforward, affordable public-insurance option that will compete with the private plans, helping keep costs down and private insurers honest.

Our public plan, called the Community Health Insurance Option, will be a truly comprehensive benefit package. If you need financial help to buy your coverage, it will be there. If you’re a doctor, choosing to participate in this plan will mean less paperwork, less red tape and fair reimbursement rates. Local advisory councils will work with the plan to make sure states and communities with good ideas are heard.

Our plan will be a new kind of health insurance that works with you and for you, not against you, to make sure you get the very best care. It will invest in prevention, in efficiency, in care management and coordination, and in strategies that improve health-care quality. And it will never deny you a policy based on your health status, or exclude certain coverage because of a pre-existing condition.

Isn’t this the way health insurance should work?

My temporary appointment to the HELP Committee has ended, but I’m going to keep working hard in the Senate to send this plan to President Obama’s desk. I’m so grateful to those of you who have already been in touch with me to share your experiences and your ideas about health-care reform, and I hope you’ll continue to reach out in the days ahead. This is an important fight, and we’re going to give it everything we have.

By: Sheldon Whitehouse