Harkin: 'Public Option' Will Be In Final Health Bill

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Sen. Tom Harkin recently took over the chairmanship of the Senate's health committee, filling a seat long held by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy. Harkin tells host Guy Raz he's confident that a "public option" for insurance will make into Congress' final health care bill — and that the president will have the bill by Christmas.

GUY RAZ, host:

Senator Harkin of Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Health Committee, argues that including young people in a final bill is ultimately about fairness.

Senator TOM HARKIN (Democrat, Iowa; Chairman, Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee): If you're uninsured, and you're a young person, and you think nothing will ever happen to you, well, you know, young people do get in accidents. They do have things happen to them, and the rest of us pick up the tab. Now is that fair to the rest of the families of America? And so there will be an individual mandate. They will have to carry health insurance.

I spoke with Senator Harkin today. He was just appointed chairman of the committee, a job that was last filled by the late Senator Edward Kennedy.

Sen. HARKIN: And I'm ready to finish the work that Ted Kennedy started by getting a national health bill through and on the president's desk before Christmas. You can count on it.

RAZ: Senator Kennedy emphasized bipartisanship. Will that be your emphasis, as well?

Sen. HARKIN: Well, my emphasis will be getting a good bill through but allowing the minority to have its voice, to offer amendments, to have them debate it. For example, what we did in our committee is we had 13 days of mark up. We adopted 161 Republican amendments on our bill, and yet on the end, not one Republican on our committee voted for it.

RAZ: Just to clarify that Republicans would argue that number, 161 amendments that Democrats have been pointing to as Republican amendments, are simply technical amendments. Only two of them were significant or controversial enough to merit roll-call votes.

Sen. HARKIN: Well, I disagree with that. Sometimes a technical amendment can make substantial changes in a bill. Look, the people of America elected Barack Obama pretty decisively to make changes, and one of the big changes they wanted was in health care.

Now, the Republicans who keep saying we want bipartisanship, they cannot define what they mean by that. What is bipartisan? How many Republicans will it take to be bipartisan? Is it five, 10, one, two? I think what we should do is to focus on the legislative process and to make sure that the minority, in this case the Republicans, have every opportunity to amend, discuss, debate and have votes on their proposals, and at the end of the day, when the votes are over, you have a final passage, and you vote the bill through. To me, that's what the people of this country expect us to do, and that's what we as Democrats are doing.

RAZ: Senator Harkin, you have said on the record that a public option, a government-backed health care plan, must be part of an overall health care bill. Will you support a plan without a public option?

Sen. HARKIN: There will be a public option. It's in our bill. It's in the bill that was passed by our committee, the HELP Committee. It's also a part of three bills that have passed committees in the House. So, four of five have a public option.

RAZ: You insist on a public option.

Sen. HARKIN: I insist on there being a public option. I'm not insisting on a distinct form of it, but there will be a public option in the final bill, yes.

RAZ: Your colleague in Iowa, Republican Senator Charles Grassley has been obviously a vocal opponent of the public option, arguing that with a public option, a Democratic bill will not get any Republican support. Is it realistic for you to try and get that support for a bill with a public option?

Sen. HARKIN: Well, I'm not certain that Senator Grassley is speaking for all Republicans. All I can point to is that the American people want a public option. Robert Wood Johnson polls recently out show that over 73 percent of the doctors in America, the doctors in America, want some form of a public option.

Now, the Republicans can oppose it, but we'll have a vote on that, and then they will have to decide at the final analysis: are they willing to vote against a health reform bill that will make sure there are no pre-existing condition clauses in health insurance, that there's no lifetime or annual caps, where we put a major emphasis on prevention and wellness, where kids can stay in their family policy until they're age 26. Are they going to say all that doesn't count simply because we're opposed to a public option?

RAZ: Turning now to the issue of mandates for a moment, how much in your view does the success of health care reform depend on a mandated system, you know, where everybody would have to have insurance?

Sen. HARKIN: Well, I believe these individual mandates will have to be necessary. Look, right now, every family in America is paying about $1,100 a year to compensate for the uninsured, the uninsured that show up in our emergency rooms, for example. Well, we do have an individual mandate in our bills, and I believe that will go through. Of course, then there will be a sliding scale of subsidies for low-income people who need the help to be able to buy that insurance.

RAZ: The bottom line for you, if you cannot get Republican support on a health care bill with a public option, your argument is the Democrats should push it through anyway.

Sen. HARKIN: Yes, we cannot fail. The system we have right now is unfair, it's dysfunctional, and the American people expect us to do something to make it better.

RAZ: Senator Tom Harkin is the new chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Senator, thank you for your time.

Sen. HARKIN: Oh, thank you very much, Guy.

(Soundbite of music)

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