What Does 'Public Plan' Mean In Health Debate?

One phrase in the health care debate is generating more buzz than any other: public plan. It's being hailed by supporters as the savior of the system, and by detractors as the first step toward socialized medicine. But what does it really mean?

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

One phrase in the health care debate is generating more debate than any other: the public plan. It's being hailed by supporters as the savior of the system, and by detractors as a step towards socialized medicine. For a look at the term itself, public plan, here's NPR's April Fulton.

APRIL FULTON: Now before you zone out on the words public plan, let's try substituting those words with public airplane.

(Soundbite of airplane engines)

FULTON: President Obama wants all Americans to get the healthy bill. Right now, there are many ways to get there, including flying on big, fancy air careers. They offer leg room and complimentary drinks. Maybe there's an in-seat TV and a hot towel if you can afford it. The trouble is, it's getting more expensive to travel, and some people can't afford to travel at all. So the president wants to create, say, government air, which will offer you a ride in a public airplane.

(Soundbite of beeping sound)

Unidentified Woman: May I have your attention (unintelligible) fasten your seatbelts…

FULTON: It's just as sturdy as those other guys, probably a 737, but it might lack a few of the perks. It might be a little more crowded, and there will probably not be free meals on the public plane, but you will have a seat and you will get to your destination, Healthyville.

Unidentified Woman: (unintelligible) non-smoking flights. There's to be no smoking in and around the airport.

FULTON: Now suppose the idea for this new mode of travel, the public plane, catches on, people really like it, and the current carriers start to take notice. The private health insurance companies, the current carriers, get nervous.

Unidentified Woman: (unintelligible) for cabin pressure, should it occur, a mask will automatically fall from over your head.

FULTON: They say they're providing the best service possible already. They fire off letters of protest and claim that if the government steps in, they will be driven out of business. The president says not to worry. Like good capitalists, the current carriers will start cutting their prices to attract the customers back, because if demand is high for lower prices, the market will produce lower prices.

Unidentified Woman: (unintelligible) to sit and relax. Your approximate flight time is one hour.

FULTON: And then perhaps the cost of health care stops skyrocketing into the stratosphere, which was President Obama's hope all along.

April Fulton, NPR News.

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