A Strange Choice of Words From the White House on the Public Option
Here’s a curious piece of the health reform speech delivered today by Christina Romer, who heads the White House Council of Economic Advisers, at the Center for American Progress:
A public health insurance option would be a credible entrant in concentrated markets, and would serve as a competitive, alternative choice, constraining the ability of insurers to raise premiums, and thus containing the growth rate of costs.
Constraining the ability of insurers to raise premiums? It’s a strange choice of language, for two reasons.
First, it’s inaccurate. The addition of a public option wouldn’t constrain the ability of insurers to do anything. Being private companies, they can do anything they please, with or without a public competitor. If the additional competition discourages them from hiking premiums in order to attract customers, that’s one thing. But they certainly wouldn’t be constrained from doing so.
And second, it’s politically treacherous. Democrats have been bending over backward to quell concerns that the public option would undermine private insurers, thereby leading eventually to a single-payer system. And recent polls indicate that they’re gaining some traction with voters. Yet Romer’s language implies a government-imposed restriction on the private marketplace, which will do nothing to win over skeptics (i.e., moderate Senate Democrats) who represent states where concerns over “a government takeover of health care” are very real. The White House is supposed to be selling this thing, not lending conservatives the ammunition to water it down.
Semantic nitpicking? Perhaps. But if there’s one thing that’s true about Washington, the framing of the policy often has greater bearing on its success than the policy itself. Indeed, many Democrats are wondering why they ever chose “public option” to describe their proposed insurance plan in the first place.