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Obama official: “Sebelius misspoke” on public option

by Policy in Practice on August 16, 2009

Sunday was a very long day for proponents of the public option being debated for the health care legislation in Congress. The Obama Administration, which has asserted for months that the public option would be one of the components of any reform efforts, seemed to backpedal today when Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told CNN that it was “not essential.” This led to a flurry of consternation across the country, with the story leading the way on the New York Times website for the rest of the day.

It turns out, however, that the Obama Administration remains committed to the public option.

Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic reports:

An administration official said tonight that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius “misspoke” when she told CNN this morning that a government run health insurance option “is not an essential part” of reform. This official asked not to be identified in exchange for providing clarity about the intentions of the President. The official said that the White House did not intend to change its messaging and that Sebelius simply meant to echo the president, who has acknowledged that the public option is a tough sell in the Senate and is, at the same time, a must-pass for House Democrats, and is not, in the president’s view, the most important element of the reform package.

A second official, Linda Douglass, director of health reform communications for the administration, said that President Obama believed that a public option was the best way to reduce costs and promote competition among insurance companies, that he had not backed away from that belief, and that he still wanted to see a public option in the final bill.

“Nothing has changed.,” she said. “The President has always said that what is essential that health insurance reform lower costs, ensure that there are affordable options for all Americans and increase choice and competition in the health insurance market. He believes that the public option is the best way to achieve these goals.”

A third White House official, via e-mail, said that Sebelius didn’t misspeak. “The media misplayed it,” the third official said.

Today’s backlash from the political left was perhaps just a glimmer of what the Obama Administration could expect if it were to relent on this issue. Or as MSNBC’s resident Rhodes Scholar, Rachel Maddow, put it on Meet the Press:

If the president decides that he’s going to go with a reform effort that doesn’t include a public option, what he will have done is spent a ton of political capital, riled up an incredibly angry right wing base who’s been told that this is a plot to kill grandma, and he will have achieved something that doesn’t change health care very much and that doesn’t save us very much money and won’t do very much for the American people.  It’s not a very good thing to spend a lot of political capital on.