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And the Alienation Begins

Just two days after receiving a letter from the White House urging that a public plan be part of the Democrats’ health reform strategy, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) indicated that the bill he’s working on will likely include such an option, Roll Call (subscription) reported last night.

“I think a bill that passes the Senate will have some version of a public option,” Baucus said.

That’s music to the ears of liberal lawmakers and many patient advocates, who argue that the public plan option would prevent private insurers from dictating all the terms of cost and coverage, as they do now. But Republicans have lined up in near unanimity against the idea, contending that public plans would skew the market with artificially low costs, eventually putting private insurers out of business altogether.

Democrats, including President Obama, have stressed the importance of producing a bipartisan agreement on health reform, but with the inclusion of a public plan, that wish could be shot.

Leaving the same gathering where reporters caught Baucus, Sen. Charles Grassley (Iowa), the senior Republican on the Finance panel, was none too pleased that his counterpart is now leaning toward inclusion of a government-sponsored plan.

“Our caucus is very much against [a public plan.] It’s kind of a litmus test,” Grassley said. “That’s all you can say. There’s no follow-up question that you can ask me. There’s no further statement I can make about it.”

Not much room for compromise there, although Joseph Antos, health analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, did offer one suggestion about how Democrats could include their public plan and still get Republicans on board: Water it down and then name it something else.

We’ll know more next week, when Baucus is expected to unveil his proposal.

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