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Wyden's Political Balancing Act

It's easy to forget now, but the Democrat who re-introduced "universal health insurance" to the political lexicon a few years ago wasn't Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, or even Ted Kennedy. It was Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, who shortly after the 2006 midterm elections proposed a comprehensive reorganization of health care that would give everybody coverage. The plan, which Wyden dubbed the "Healthy Americans Act," got a great deal of publicity and attracted some impressively bipartisan support. But, since then, it's also gained some critics.   

Business groups and some conservatives have criticized the Healthy Americans Act, partly because--at least in its original version--it would have eliminated most existing employer-sponsored coverage. Many employers are reluctant to give up the control over benefits they now have.  

Unions and some liberals have also criticized the Wyden plan, largely because it would put everybody into private insurance. Remember, the proposals that Obama and his allies now back would offer people the option of enrolling in a public insurance plan, modeled vaguely on Medicare. This is particularly appealing to the many liberals who would, someday, like to create a full-blown single-payer system.  

At a Wednesday forum sponsored by The Atlantic magazine and held at the National Press Club, Wyden tried to ease some of those qualms. Having made some modifications to his plan, Wyden reintroduced the bill in Congress last Friday. The new version, he pointed out, is even closer to the framework Obama has proposed, since it would leave in place many existing employer-sponsored plans. "We've added a new section that's called ‘guaranteeing that you can keep the coverage you have,'" Wyden said, echoing Obama's oft-repeated refrain from the campaign trail and joking that the homage "isn't subtle." He added that his plan would fulfill Obama's campaign pledge of alleviating costs for the middle-class, by guaranteeing insurance for everybody and reducing its overall costs through administrative simplification and other efficiency gains.   

But Wyden's approach still diverges from Obama when it comes to the creation of a new public insurance plan. With a public plan, Wyden said, "Clearly we wouldn't have Republican sponsors." Later, as he was leaving the press club, he added, "We can't look like we're on the march toward government-run health care!" Wyden is almost certainly right about the legislative situation: If he had proposed to create a new public insurance plan, Utah Senator Bob Bennett wouldn't be his chief co-sponsor and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham wouldn't be his latest recruit. (Bennett himself was at the forum yesterday.) But that probably won't make Wyden's more liberal critics feel much better.  

--Suzy Khimm