Dean: Public Option Will Hurt Democrats in 2010 Elections

The former governor also said he thinks Schumer's plan can pass.

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Former Gov. Howard Dean said this morning that the public option for health insurance still has a chance in the Senate but warned that its passage could hurt Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections.

"My guess is that Schumer's version [of the public option] can pass," Dean said at a healthcare roundtable on Capitol Hill, referring a recent proposal by Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York.

[See Public Option Is Down but Not Out.]

Schumer's plan, like other public-option proposals, would create a government-run insurance company, but it would not tie doctors' and other healthcare providers' payments to Medicare rates, which tend to be so low that doctors lose money when they treat Medicare-covered patients. Instead, it would let providers negotiate those rates.

Schumer's proposal was defeated 13 to 10 last week in the Senate Finance Committee, but it fared significantly better than a more politically liberal alternative put forth by Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia. Rockefeller's proposal would set reimbursement rates for doctors at Medicare levels.

Dean said he expects the more liberal House Democrats to "to pull the Senate back" by insisting on a public option of some form in the final bill. "We have to be able to choose between a public option and a private option," he said, adding that no such option is in the Senate Finance Committee bill.

But he also warned that the public option may hurt Democrats politically next year. "If the Democrats want to hold on to their majority, you're going to have a problem," he said. That's because the public option wouldn't be up and running until 2013, long after the 2010 elections, meaning voters won't really see any benefits until long after the election.

To address that problem, Dean said Democrats need to do something that will have tangible results by next summer. His proposal: opening up Medicare to people over the age of 50 so that a "certain mass" of people will already have benefited from health reform by the elections. "You need to have people sign up for this program by July 2010," Dean said.