Sen. Rockefeller On Health Co-Ops Plan
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia sits on the Senate Finance Committee. In fact, he chairs the subcommittee on health care. And while some more conservative Democrats talk up the idea of health cooperatives as an alternative to a government-sponsored health insurance plan, Senator Rockefeller is publicly skeptical of the co-op idea and he joins us now. Hi, welcome to the program.
Senator JAY ROCKEFELLER (Democrat, West Virginia): Well, thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: First in substance, what is the difference between a national public health insurer competing with for-profit companies nationwide and a national system of statewide nonprofit co-ops doing the same thing?
Sen. ROCKEFELLER: It's a gigantic difference, and it's a terrifying difference. In the Senate bill, they did not put in the public option. They put in this thing called co-op. And I don't really know much about health co-ops, and so I decided I needed to know more. I called up the people who represent all cooperatives in this country of all kinds, including health. And they said, well, to be truthful about it, there's only about 20. There's only two that really work: one in the state of Washington…
SIEGEL: One in the Twin Cities in Minnesota, yes.
Sen. ROCKEFELLER: In the Twin Cities. And then there are 18 more in one form or another. None of them are licensed. None of them are regulated. None of them have ever been studied for what they do to either help or harm the customers -the people who need health insurance. The more I learn about it - as a very, very dicey way to take on gigantic insurance companies who have been, since the beginning of the year, spending $1.5 million a day to make sure that health care reform never comes to light.
SIEGEL: Now, Senator Conrad of North Dakota, your Democratic colleague who sponsored the co-op idea said this the other day: Whatever you think about a public option, he said, it doesn't have the votes. Is he right and can you turn that around over the next few months to get your colleagues in favor of it?
Sen. ROCKEFELLER: I think we probably could. I think if we start with the fact that except for three people who are Republicans - every Republican in the Senate is against whatever we do and whatever you call it and it's basically the same in the House - I think that the people don't like the word public plan. Because it sounds like government taking something over, like the person who told Obama that Medicare really wasn't a public plan at all. This was yesterday.
People aren't always fully filled in on the intricacies of health care, that the public option is not inventing something, it's simply making something available. And you don't have to make a profit on it. What is wrong with that? Doesn't that cause the insurance companies to have to lower their prices?
SIEGEL: Can you imagine voting against a bill because it lacks a public option?
Sen. ROCKEFELLER: No. I will vote against a bill that doesn't have something that is very similar to a public plan. Give it any name you want, but it's got to have - it's got to be no profit. It's got to challenge the insurance companies. I mean, they're in the business of making money.
SIEGEL: So, if there was something national and nonprofit, owned by all the people who buy policies from it and were called a co-op, does national solve your problem?
Sen. ROCKEFELLER: First of all, it's never been national. So, I'd have to guess - I guess be pretty convinced that you could start and make from scratch a co-op which does not exist in most of the territories in the United States. And that they could suddenly make a national one and make it work, and we would bet the farm on this, I'm not willing to do that.
SIEGEL: Pretty soon you'll be going back to West Virginia.
Sen. ROCKEFELLER: Sure.
SIEGEL: What do you to sell people on your ideas there and to assure what seems to be a large part of the public that hears public government national health insurance plan and somehow thinks that Washington's not up to the task?
Sen. ROCKEFELLER: Well, actually, in polls, the public option does very well. And so I think the way I would start would be talking about, okay, well, so here's your alternative. So, rather than trying to just sell what the public plan is, I would talk about what the alternatives might mean to them. And that is that they would have a very weak health insurance plan that would in no way stand up to the big health insurance companies whose only interest is making money. I'm sorry to be so hard on them, but I do so with full zest and heart.
SIEGEL: Well, Senator Rockefeller, thank you very much for talking with us.
Sen. ROCKEFELLER: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Senator Jay Rockefeller, Democrat of West Virginia, member of the Senate Finance Committee and very strong advocate of a public option in the health care overhaul.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.