Weather Forecast


North Dakota's Sen. Conrad takes cautious approach to public option health care plan

Sen. Kent Conrad

GRAND FORKS -- Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., architect of the cooperatives alternative to the controversial public option plan to reform the nation's health insurance system, said Tuesday that he will "reserve judgment" on the apparent revival of a government-run insurance provision in the Senate.

Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., announced Monday that the health care legislation he will bring to the floor will include a public option, but individual states would be able to opt out of the program.

Reid said a public option would give millions of Americans an alternative to private insurance. He did not say, however, whether he believes he has the 60 votes necessary to pass a bill containing the controversial plan, which some critics argue is the first step toward a total government takeover of the health insurance industry.

Conrad, a member of the Finance Committee "gang of six" that tried to craft a reform bill that might -- by offering consumers access to nonprofit health insurance cooperatives rather than a government-run plan -- did not respond to requests for an interview Tuesday, citing the press of Senate business.

But the senator's office released a brief statement.

"I haven't seen Sen. Reid's proposal in writing," Conrad said, according to the statement. "All I have seen are press reports.

"I've read that the public option in Sen. Reid's bill is not tied to Medicare levels of reimbursement. That is obviously very important to my state. I am also encouraged that co-ops -- the not-for-profit, member-owned and operated alternative I authored -- is also in the Reid bill.

"But I will reserve judgment until we see the finished product in writing and have the scores from the Congressional Budget Office" tallying the costs of the revised bill. "This is just the next step in a long line of steps."

Other moderate Senate Democrats were reported to be "balking" Tuesday at giving new life to public option, and Republican and other opposition was said to be stiffening. Sen. Joe Lieberman, the former Democrat from Connecticut and now an Independent, said he will not vote for a bill containing a public option, apparently leaving Reid with less than the required 60 votes.

Conservative bloggers and organizations tore at Reid's attempt to fashion a compromise.

"This public option 'opt-out' is nothing more than a scam," said Bill Wilson, president of Americans for Limited Government, a conservative think tank. "The federal government will still hold all the cards and use subsidy 'incentives' to essentially force states onto government-run health care. In the end, states will be punished one way or the other for not participating."

Public option, public controversy

Providing a government-run alternative has been a key part of President Barack Obama's plan to overhaul the health care system, providing access for people unable to find or afford private insurance.

But as Congress broke for the summer and members returned to their home districts, many were greeted by angry constituents who denounced the reform proposals -- especially the public option -- as "socialized medicine."

In early July, Conrad presided over a gathering of health care workers and others at Altru Hospital in Grand Forks and outlined his cooperative alternative, basing it on a model long familiar to North Dakotans because of farmer and other co-ops.

He said he had been asked by Senate leaders to come up with something to "bridge the gap" between advocates and opponents of public option. He also noted that a public option tied to Medicare reimbursement levels would be disastrous for North Dakota, which has the nation's second-lowest reimbursement payments.

Liberal Democrats reacted with dismay. A cooperative approach would be "a great mistake" and a retreat from meaningful reform, former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said.

To build support for public option and pressure Conrad and other moderate Democrats, labor unions and other liberal activists opened offices in North Dakota and other states, held rallies and ran radio and TV ads, some of which became sharp in tone, accusing the senator of selling out to insurance and other lobbyists.

Last week, Grand Forks area labor leaders were courteous but still firmly committed to public option as they rallied outside Conrad's local office, then went inside to talk with one of the senator's aides as part of a "national day of action" on health care reform.

"We plead with the senator (to support) a robust public option," said Alexandra Townsend, political action coordinator for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in North Dakota.

A continuing push

On Tuesday, representatives of the Progressive Faith Network, Catholics United and other North Dakota faith groups called on Conrad "to stand up to the powerful special interests and support the strongest health care reform possible" as a matter of "moral urgency."

"Public option is what will provide the competition that will (provide) quality, affordable care for everyone," said Don Morrison, a spokesman for the group. "There must be a choice."

Karl Limvere, a United Church of Christ pastor in Medina, N.D., said the group did not mean to criticize Conrad but to invite him to work for what's best for everyone.

The activism came in response to an apparent softening in the push for a public option, as President Obama and Senate leaders counted likely votes for a reform bill. In mid-August, Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of Health and Human Services, said on CNN that the public option was "not the essential element" for reform and that co-ops could be a legitimate alternative.

"What's important is choice and competition," she said. "And I'm convinced at the end of the day, the plan will have both of those."

Conrad, appearing about the same time on Fox News Sunday, insisted that public option was a nonstarter.

"The fact of the matter is, there are not the votes in the United States Senate for the public option," he said then. "There never have been. So, to continue to chase that rabbit, I think, is just a wasted effort."

He said much the same thing at a public forum in Mayville, N.D., on Aug. 18: "I have to deal with reality. There aren't the votes to pass public option."

Under a public option tied to Medicare rates, he added, "every single hospital in North Dakota goes broke." Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., has offered the same explanation for his opposition to a public option plan in health care reform bills before the House.