Finance Committee Shuns Public Option; Coughs Up Cash For Abstinence Education

"Senators also voted Tuesday to restore federal funding for abstinence-only education [...] Conrad and Sen. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) joined all 10 Republicans on the Finance Committee in adding the $50 million-a-year program to the health care bill." Insanity overload!

Can someone please explain to me how we could vote against public options to make health insurance more accessible to the general population, and yet vote in favor of a program that is guaranteed to tax the current broken system?

Back in 2005, the American Academy of Pediatrics updated its recommendations to reflect a more comprehensive view of preventable pregnancy. The Associated Press reported:

"Even though there is great enthusiasm in some circles for abstinence-only interventions, the evidence does not support abstinence-only interventions as the best way to keep young people from unintended pregnancy," said Dr. Jonathan Klein, chairman of the academy committee that wrote the new recommendations.

In Texas, educators are re-evaluating abstinence-only education and moving toward abstinence-plus in light of the rising rates of both teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections/diseases.

To me, this example of disassociation is why our health care debate is in dire straits. How are we going to erode support for all citizens in pursuit of health coverage while at the same time, upholding policies that have contributed to this escalating problem?

In the meantime, the arguments against the public option aren't looking very convincing. While both amendments to the health care bill that included a public option were defeated, the reasoning cited leaves much to be desired:

The votes vindicated the middle-of-the-road approach taken by the committee chairman, Senator Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana. Mr. Baucus voted against both proposals, which were offered as amendments to his bill to expand coverage and rein in health costs.

"There's a lot to like about a public option," Mr. Baucus said, but he asserted that the idea could not get the 60 votes needed to overcome a Republican filibuster on the Senate floor.

Republicans on the committee unanimously opposed the public option, saying it was, in the words of Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, "a Trojan horse for a single-payer system" in which the government would eventually control most health care.

Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the committee, said a government insurance plan would have inherent advantages over private insurers. "Government is not a fair competitor," Mr. Grassley said. "It's a predator." He predicted that "a government plan will ultimately force private insurers out of business," reducing choices for consumers.

Senator Grassley's comments vex me, but I am one of those people that sees insurance companies as predators. I've only had one insurer I've actually liked and felt like provided good coverage - and that was not with my most expensive plan. With this argument, I also think of another large government monopoly that most people have come to accept without question: the postal service. While the USPS is facing its fair share of problems (including less mail being sent and more costs, along with financial deficits) most representatives didn't bat an eye at voting to save these services.

Walter Barton, President of the National Association of Letter Carriers, wrote an op-ed in Newsday, explaining:

The recession has had a tremendous impact on the Postal Service. This year, mail volume has declined by 40 billion pieces, and the service is forecasting a $7 billion deficit. Cost-cutting proposals include shutting post offices and eliminating Saturday delivery.

Dropping one delivery day could save $3.3 billion next year - a number that looks good on paper. But consider the consequences. Ending Saturday delivery could eliminate at least 50,000 postal worker jobs - about 575 here on Long Island. Most economic experts will tell you that reducing the workforce only adds to the problems of difficult economic times. Creating and maintaining good jobs helps end them.

Five-day delivery will also make the Postal Service more vulnerable to competition, which will step in to fill the Saturday void. And since private companies will only deliver where they can make money, the average customer in a less well-off community will pay more for service.

By contrast, the Postal Service doesn't pick and choose its customers. It delivers to 150 million households and businesses - a number that continues to grow by 1 million each year.

Barton's comments translate well to the current debates. For one thing, competition is an issue. But it probably will not be as grim as some are making it out to be. By law, the Postal Service is the only entity licensed to carry mail. However, other services have popped up to carry packages, something that the postal service also provides. Both FedEx and UPS also do package and document delivery around the globe. Many people prefer to use those services. But it is important to note that for those who need a cheaper option, the USPS is there. It may be slower and it may not come with tracking and signature confirmation (though these services are available for an additional fee) but it is available.

Introducing a public option will not kill competition. As Barton points out, private companies are working to make money. This in itself is not a bad thing, but it is foolish to think that for-profit companies will be able to fill such a widespread need. Will some be able to pay more for private insurance and private coverage? Sure they can, just like someone can pay more money to have a private service to deliver their documents and packages.

But the public option for letter mailing is always there, for those who cannot afford the other options. Why can't this infrastructure exist for health care? If someone wants to opt-out of using the public option, then that is fine. But allow the 44 million of us without health insurance to have something to opt into.

According to poll data, most Americans believe we should have the right to excellent quality health care and are willing to pay extra in taxes to work toward this goal. Across political lines, our faith in the government may vary, but the core principle does not. People deserve the right to affordable health care. And one of the few ways to ensure that happens is to provide a government provided option.

Some supporters believe that Obama is the key to reform, that ultimately whatever the President lobbies for will happen. Still, others are unsure - the small government tendencies run deep in this country, and any expansion of government services (outside of counter-terrorism, that is) will be viewed with skepticism.

Ultimately, the fear of a public option comes down to the words of Senator John Ensign:

Senator John Ensign, Republican of Nevada, said he feared that a government plan would prove so popular it could never be uprooted. "Does anybody believe Congress would let this public plan go away once it has a constituency?" Mr. Ensign asked. "No way. Once it's started, you will never get rid of it. Congress will subsidize it more and more, allow it to grow and grow."

I wonder how a government plan would prove to be intensely popular and have a strong constituency?

I suppose starting with 44 million discontents can't hurt.

Prospects For Public Option Dim In Senate [Washington Post]
Doctors Denounce Abstinence-Only Education [CNN/MSNBC]
Texas Schools Move Away From Abstinence-Only Education: We Don't Think It's Working. [Think Progress]
Senators Reject Pair Of Public Option Proposals [New York Times]
House Passes Bill To Prevent Government Shutdown [The Associated Press]
OPINION: Don't Cut The Postal Service To Try To Save It [Newsday]
Americans Willing To Fund Healthcare Reform: Poll [Reuters]
Public Option Fate In Obama's Hands [Politico]