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Liberals Demand "Public Option" At Capitol Hill Rally

(CBS / Stephanie Condon)
Health care reform advocates are taking direct aim at health insurance companies. In a rally on Capitol Hill today, some high profile politicians joined thousands of union workers, doctors and other health care reform supporters in a united front against the industry and demanded a government-sponsored health insurance option.

"Harry's dead and Louise has got diabetes," Gerald McEntee, international president of the AFSCME, told the thousands at the rally, sponsored by the organization Health Care For America Now. He was referencing the infamous television commercial, funded by the Health Insurance Association of America, that had a hand in killing President Clinton's attempt at health care reform in the 1990's.

"Rush Limbaugh, Rick Scott, the insurance companies," McEntee continued. "They don't want to fix health care, they want to scare people."

As conservatives have attempted to paint President Obama's call for a government-sponsored health insurance plan, or "public option," as a government takeover, liberals have responded with attacks that the health insurance industry is the real culprit when it comes to interferences in health care.

"Whose choice is it who will be your doctor?" asked Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), a senior member of one of the committees responsible for Medicare. "Yours or your insurance company's?"

(CBS / Stephanie Condon)
"Do we want to let the insurance companies run the show?" Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) yelled, getting a fevered "No!" in response from the crowd. "Do we want a strong public option?"

As a key member of the Senate Finance Committee, Schumer has been responsible for drafting a plan for how to implement a public option for the health care reform package the committee will introduce.

"We cannot do this alone," Schumer said. "You being here, we'll make sure you hold everybody in that building's feet to the fire," he added, motioning to the Capitol building in view behind the podium.

Schumer and the other speakers stood before a sea of colors and acronyms, with different colored shirts representing different unions. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) wore purple, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) wore red, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) wore green, and so on.

"They want to divide us, worker against worker," said McEntee, speaking about opponents of health care reform. "But we are united."

Union influence can be found in more than just the debate over a public plan. President Obama's positions on other controversial proposals for reform, like taxing health care benefits (which Mr. Obama opposes) and a "pay or play" mandate (which the president supports), are in line with the unions.

Taxing health care benefits "will hurt working families," McEntee said.

"We say to the deadbeat employers," said Larry Cohen, president of the CWA, "we will fight for the employer mandate."

The focus of the rally, however, was certainly the public option.

"We're counting on you to go across the street and cajole… and do what you need to do to get a strong public option," said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who sits on one of the Senate committees drafting health care legislation. "Let me assure you, the health insurance industry will not hijack this process."

Brown challenged the health insurance industry's opposition to the public plan with the same logic Mr. Obama has used repeatedly.

"The insurance industry always tells us they can do it best, that government can't run anything," he said. "Then explain to me why the insurance industry is so afraid that the public option is going to put them out of business."

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean suggested that if a public option is not included in the final health care reform package, it will not just be Republicans who suffer the consequences. Democrats won the 2008 elections handily because Americans are looking for change, he said.

"If we don't get it, there's going to be more change," he said. "We want a public health insurance option now."

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