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Obama news conference: Talking health insurance

June 23, 2009 | 10:17 am

President Barack Obama speaks during a press conference

The president addressed at greater length his ideas about why healthcare in America has to be reformed and seemed to take pains to let private health insurers who are worried about competing against a government-provided plan (as Obama has proposed) know that they should not worry about being driven out of business.

“Now, the public plan is an important tool to discipline insurance companies,” he said. “Under our proposal ... if you like your plan and your doctor, terrific, we’re not gonna mess with it. But if you are a small-business person ... if you want to shop for a better price, you can go to this exchange, this marketplace” and comparison shop.

"But won’t that" asked the reporter, "drive private insurance out of business?"

“Why would it drive private insurers out of business?” asked Obama. “If they tell you they’re offering a good deal, why is it that government -- which they say can’t run anything -- can drive them out of business? There are gonna be some legitimate debates to be had about how this takes shape. But conceptually, if they can’t compete against a public plan as one option, with consumers making the decision on the best plan, that defies logic.”

Obama speaks at today's press conference There was a lighthearted moment when Jake Tapper of ABC revisited the idea of the government competing with private health insurers: “Is the public plan non-negotiable?”

Obama, who seemed amused that Tapper was returning to a topic addressed already by a competitor: “Are you the ombudsman for the White House press corps?”

Tapper said something about Dr. Spock, which we missed. But Obama heard it. “First of all, the reference to Spock. Was that a crack on my ears?” he asked. Tapper: “I would never make fun of your ears.”

Obama reiterated that the plan was not fully developed yet.

“We are still early in this process. … Reform has to control costs and it has to provide relief to people who don’t have insurance or are underinsured. … There are a whole host of other issues where, ultimately, I may have a strong opinion, and I will express that to Congress as that is shaping up.”

Right now, he said, “a public plan makes sense. ... There is a legitimate concern if the public plan was eating off the taxpayer trough, it would be hard for private insurers to compete. If on the other hand, the public plan is structured in such a way that they’ve got to collect premiums and provide good service, private insurers should be able to compete.”

Further, he added, “If the public plan can reduce administrative costs significantly, I’d like private insurance companies to say, 'Hey if the government can do that, why can’t we?' ”

-- Robin Abcarian

Top photo: Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty Images
Bottom photo: Charles Dharapak / Associated Press

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