Snowe: Give The Private Insurance Market Another Shot

Earlier this week, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) came under fire from liberal health reform advocates for restating her opposition to offering a national public insurance option as an immediate feature of comprehensive health care reform. In an interview with the Associated Press she explained her reasoning.

“If you establish a public option at the forefront that goes head-to-head and competes with the private health insurance market … the public option will have significant price advantages.”

As I noted previously, this is a sort of strange critique of the public option–what’s so bad about an insurance program that’s more affordable to consumers than most private plans?

To clear up the confusion, I asked a Snowe aide to further explain the senator’s reasoning. He said that the two sections of the AP quote were meant to address separate aspects of Snowe’s opposition to the plan.He said that when reforms short of the public option are combined with assistance to help lower income individuals buy insurance, coverage will be more accessible and affordable. But if things don’t pan out that way–if residents in some states still lack affordable options–then Snowe would make the public option available in those markets. This is the so-called “trigger mechanism”, and it’s strongly opposed by most reformers. Her plan also suggests a public option, if triggered, won’t necessarily be national in scope, which would violate the principles outlined by the reform campaign Health Care for America Now.

At the same time, Snowe argues that even with some “leveling”, a triggered public option–meant to provide a “safety net” should private plans fail to perform–won’t and shouldn’t really exist on a completely level playing field with private insurers.

But if there’s a price advantage to the public option, what’s the problem with offering it at the outset?

According to the aide, “Consumers want price reductions from real improvements, but are concerned patients could suffer if savings are delivered by means which compromise care or limit choice and innovation.” Recent polls, however, suggest Americans broadly support a robust public option, which could reduce insurance prices fairly dramatically. They don’t, however, suggest support for delaying a government option indefinitely while allowing the a more tightly regulated private market to achieve lower costs on its own.