Health Care: Explaining the Public Option 'Trigger'

Early word out of the White House is that while President Obama will reiterate personal support for the public option in his speech tonight, he’ll signal to Congress that he’s willing to sign a bill without a government-sponsored health-care plan. How will he keep Democrats on board and still woo Republicans? One compromise that’s become the talk of Washington and could come up in Obama’s speech tonight: the so-called “trigger” option.

It’s an idea that was first floated by GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe, one of the few Republicans who has continued to actively negotiate with the White House on a health-care-reform compromise. The idea is to give insurance companies a set period to make changes that would bring down long-term costs and help cover more people. If the industry didn’t meet the goal, it would trigger a so-called public insurance option to put pressure on companies to make those changes. Still up for debate: what that defined period would be. Would it be two years? Would it be five years? Those details haven’t been nailed down, much less written up. It’s not included in the proposed legislation circulated by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, who told reporters today the trigger has not been a part of their negotiations. And the proposal hasn't been debated by House lawmakers at all.

The question is whether the trigger would get the votes Obama needs to get health care through Congress. It’s something that would provide political cover to both sides. Dems could argue they are supporting a public option if insurance companies don’t get their act together. On the other hand, Republicans worried about a government option could vote for a reform bill with a somewhat clear conscious (sort of). Yet reaction has been mixed: in the Senate, Ben Nelson and Amy Klobuchar have signaled tentative but influential support. In the House, Reps. Steny Hoyer and James Clyburn—the No. 2 and No. 3  Democrats in leadership─suggested they’d support the plan, too. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has made clear she doesn't like the idea. Ditto for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who told reporters today the trigger is merely a “gimmick”

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