Can you please insurance companies and have a public plan at the same time?
PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network, coming to you from Washington, DC. We’re at the conference America’s Future Now. And joining us is Jan Jackowski. She’s a congresswoman from Illinois. She was national cochair of now-president Obama’s campaigns. Thanks for joining us, Jan.
SCHAKOWSKY: Thank you.
JAY: So I know when it comes to health care what’s off the table. Senator Baucus has made it clear single-payer is off the table. I don’t know what’s on the table. I thought a competitive public plan, as promised by President (then candidate) Obama, was clearly on the table. There was talk of a plan that was a federal insurance plan. I remember him saying in the campaign, “You’ll be able to get insurance just like me or Senator McCain has.” But what I’m hearing from Senator Baucus sounds very iffy, what—if there’s even going to be a public plan.
SCHAKOWSKY: No—oh, yes, there will be. The president is meeting today with the Senate Democrats. He’s going and talking about the need for a public health-insurance option within the plan, not one that’s set off by some sort of a trigger that, if the insurance companies don’t do it in two year—no, that that will be part—that he supports having that as part of the plan.
JAY: And is he going to come out swinging on this? Because, you know, he’s let Baucus kind of be the frontman on all of this. Most of the attention’s been on the Senate Finance Committee. But we haven’t heard him say, “I’m committed to what I said in the election campaign.” Is he going to come out?
SCHAKOWSKY: Well, I certainly, in the meetings that I’ve had at the White House with him, he’s been very clear that he supports the public health-insurance option, and at the same time leaving it to the Congress to fill in the details. But I have every confidence that the president is making it clear to all the decision-makers that that’s got to be part of the plan. And, of course, in the House, Charlie Rangel, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, has made it clear that he doesn’t think, and I agree, that it will pass the House of Representatives without having a robust public health-insurance option included.
JAY: Now, Senator Baucus has—and this isn’t all up to Senator Baucus, but he’s certainly become a focal point for the debate, ’cause he’s been running the hearings. He said the other day at the Kaiser Family Foundation, “We’re going to kind of lean a little bit towards public and a little bit towards the private insurance, and we’re not going to go too far in either way.” The message seemed to be, “We’re going to try to negotiate something that’s acceptable to private insurance companies.” But a lot of people think, if there’s going to be a full-fledged, competitive public plan, there’s going to be kind of a war with private insurance companies. They clearly don’t want it. And the only person that has the political capital, I think, to fight this is the president. Is he going to get out there and—?
SCHAKOWSKY: Well, here’s the difference between what’s going on now and what happened in ’93 when Hillary Clinton made a heroic effort to try and get universal health care. The demand right now from a very mobilized public is for a really good—not some sort of a cosmetic health-insurance program. It’s not just the 15 million or so people who are without health insurance, but the majority of Americans now, last year, over 50 percent, said they either had to forgo or postpone some needed health insurance, you know, some procedure or a prescription drug. I mean, we’re in a crisis situation right now. This is not a Republican or a Democratic issue. In fact, I think Republicans who vote no to health reform are going to be in peril, because, especially with the downturn in the economy, people lose their jobs, they lose their health care. And so this is directly connected to the economy right now.
JAY: So you’re confident that the president is committed to a public option? We’re not going to see a proposal that’s a regulated private option? Like, we’re not going to hear—?
SCHAKOWSKY: No, but there will be regulated—. The private insurance companies, in addition to having to compete with a public plan, aren’t going to be able to exclude people because of a pre-existing condition. I believe that though—there will be a defined benefit package that they’re going to have to meet, at least minimally. So there’s going to be a lot more regulation. I think they understand, yes, are they going to mount sort of a last-gasp kind of campaign? I think they will. They may get some of the Republicans to support them. But this is a very dangerous time for members of Congress to resist a really good plan that at the end of the day does say to all Americans, you’re going to be covered if you want to buy health insurance. In fact, there may even be, I don’t know, a mandate—the president hasn’t called for it, but, you know, to be part of the system and to get some kind of insurance.
JAY: So for the public plan to be meaningful, what do you think it has to meet in terms of the level of insurance? Because there is some people who are afeared—. Afraid. “Afeared.” Some people are afraid that it will be such a weak plan, and then some of the companies with better plans are going to try to push employees out of the private plan into a weaker private-public plan. How do you make sure that public plan is powerful?
SCHAKOWSKY: Because I think that, in fact, what the insurance companies are asking for is having the public plan play by the same rules they do. So I think that there will be, if not an identical benefit package, that there will be, certainly, a very similar package for them. So I think we’re going to see by the end of the year—and what we’re talking about, the president’s telling the Senate Democrats today, by October of 2009 he wants a bill on his desk. This is really exciting. And the president is aware of the momentum he has right now.
JAY: A bill with a public component.
JAY: And the Senate Democrats are—not all, of course, but some of the Senate Democrats are part of the problem. So how much does he lean on them?
SCHAKOWSKY: Well, I’ll tell you what. If we use what is called reconciliation (that will require only 51 votes in the Senate to pass a health-care bill), then we’re going to be able to do it. The president would prefer not to use reconciliation to get to the 60 votes.
JAY: And just to make sure, explain that to our viewers, exactly what that means.
SCHAKOWSKY: It’s whether or not you can pass a bill with 51 votes—just a simple majority—or whether you have to have 60 votes to prevent a filibuster.
JAY: And why—just explain, ’cause not everybody understands it. Why is that possible in this case that 51 would be enough?
JAYSCHAKOWSKY: Because what we use is what is called reconciliation, which is really just a rule that says that it only takes a majority in order to do that. The House will have reconciliation. We’ve already passed it in our budget bill for health care. And so we’re saying that it only takes a majority. I feel absolutely confident that we are going to have a good, if not a great, health-care bill that at least is a beginning. We may have to fill in the blanks when it comes to, for example, a prescription drug program for Medicare beneficiaries. We wanted to have a better one. But I think we’re going to have a framework under which all Americans will fit.
JAY: Now, is it possible we’re going to have two very different bills, one coming out of the House and one coming out of the Senate? And then what? Does the White House need to, you know, put the hammer down?
SCHAKOWSKY: You know, I think there may be a point at which the White House has to actively participate in negotiations, but I think the goal is to try and set the parameters up front so that we don’t end up with something very different. There’s going to be three House committees that are working off the same bill. So we’re going to have, I think, a lot of—if not consensus, we’re going to start from the same point in the house. And we’re going to pass a strong bill. Hopefully, it’s not too different from the Senate bill.
JAY: Now, what do you say to the constituency, which is large and growing, that say, “Why isn’t single-payer politically possible”? Like, the argument doesn’t seem to be that single-payer is not good. In fact, President Obama has said, on many occasions, if we’re starting from scratch it’s probably the better plan. Why isn’t it even really being discussed? Like, why doesn’t Baucus even allow people at the table?
SCHAKOWSKY: I’ll tell you what. We’ve done pulling on it, and as somebody who for a long time has been a single-payer proponent—.
JAY: You have been?
SCHAKOWSKY: Yes, I have been. But we’ve done pulling on that and found that the American people feel more comfortable with the idea that if they like what they have, they can keep it. People on Medicare, if you say, “We’re going to get rid of Medicare and fold it into this new thing,” get worried about that. So what the American people are telling us, that rather than just a public—a single payer or just private, that what they prefer the choice of either one. And that’s what I think we’re going to end up with.
JAY: And that’s what persuaded you to move from the single-payer camp to the—?
SCHAKOWSKY: Well, also I think, you know, look, we didn’t have the votes. We don’t have the votes for a single—.
JAY: In the Senate.
SCHAKOWSKY: We don’t have the votes in the House for a single-payer program. And rather than to say, “I’m going to, you know, fight to the finish and lose the bill altogether—.” You know, our democracy is about give and take. I think it will be very, very good if we get a robust public-insurance option, and if people want to keep their—for example, their employee-provider plan, they can do that and aren’t going to worry that somehow what they have is going to be snatched away from them.
JAY: Thanks very much for joining us.
SCHAKOWSKY: Thank you. Appreciate it
JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.