Sen. Ted Kennedy and his wife, Vicki Kennedy. Kennedy is co-sponsoring a resolution that demands that any health care reform include a public insurance option. (Photo: Alex Wong / Getty Images)
Liberals pushing for the creation of a federally run health insurance plan won a major victory Thursday when Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) strongly indicated his commitment to the policy, one of the most controversial elements of healthcare reform.
Kennedy has co-sponsored a resolution introduced by Sen. Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and 26 other Democratic senators that declares the healthcare reform legislation the Senate will consider this summer must include a public plan option people can choose instead of private insurance. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) also co-sponsored the resolution.
Though purely symbolic, this show of strength by 28 Democratic senators sends a clear signal to liberals that a public plan, one of the left's top priorities and a component of President Obama's healthcare platform, will be part of reform.
Kennedy's unequivocal support for the public plan marks a return of sorts to the front lines of the battle for healthcare reform.
Kennedy has been absent for much of the year as he undergoes treatments for a brain tumor. Democrats are hopeful he will return next month to oversee his Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee's markup of healthcare reform legislation.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) also indicated Thursday that his panel's version of the healthcare reform bill also will include some type of public plan.
"I do suspect that a version will be there," Baucus said. "Now, by saying that, I don't want to frighten people, particularly on the industry side. ... All I'm saying is, there are ways to skin a cat. There are ways to find a solution."
The same group of Democratic senators, not including Kennedy, penned a letter to Kennedy and Baucus earlier this month stating their support for the public plan. The resolution does not specify what form the public plan must take.
"Resolved, That the Senate recognizes that any efforts to reform our Nation's health care system should include as an option the establishment of a federally-backed insurance pool to create options for American consumers," the "Sense of the Senate" resolution reads, in part.
"This is about consumer choice and introducing competition in the health insurance market," Brown said in a statement. "Private health insurers always manage to stay one step ahead of the sheriff" finding new ways to limit care and pass costs along to the consumer. Giving Americans the choice of a quality, federally backed, health insurance option will keep private insurers honest and make healthcare affordable."
The options range from establishing a Medicare-like program to Sen. Charles Schumer's (D-N.Y.) bid to set up a plan that must abide by the same regulations as private insurers' to Sen. Olympia Snowe's (R-Maine) proposal to establish a "fallback" public plan that would kick in if private insurers fail to meet certain benchmarks.
Both committees plan to mark up legislation next month; the Senate is slated to vote on a combined bill in July.
HELP Committee members Kennedy, Brown and Democratic Sens. Chris Dodd (Conn.), Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), Barbara Mikulksi (Md.), Tom Harkin (Iowa), Jack Reed (R.I.), Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), Bob Casey Jr. (Pa.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Jeff Merkley (Ore.) are sponsors of the resolution.
Among Finance Committee members, Democratic Sens. Schumer, Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.), Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) and Robert Menendez (N.J.) are co-sponsors. Bingaman is also a Finance Committee member.
Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer (Calif.), Carl Levin (Mich.), Patrick Leahy (Vt.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Tom Udall (N.M.), Daniel Inouye (Hawaii), Ted Kaufman (Del.), Roland Burris (Ill.), Frank Lautenberg (N.J.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.) and Benjamin Cardin (Md.) also co-sponsored the resolution.