The proposal is certainly gaining momentum in Congress, but the word "public" could be in trouble. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tried to change the terminology today when she emerged from a Democratic caucus meeting on health care.
"It's not really a public option, it's a consumer option," Pelosi said. "As we're mandating that people buy insurance we are saying to them, you have leverage, you have another choice. This is your consumer option." To back up her point, Pelosi said that the program would be self-sustaining and benefits would be paid for by premiums, not taxpayers.
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) was quick to endorse Pelosi's new lingo. "She's absolutely right, a consumer option," Hoyer said.
Changing the language of a heated debate is nothing new in Congress. Last year, when the economy was in freefall and Congress had to step in with $700 billion dollars to keep big banks from collapsing, lawmakers changed the toxic term "bailout" to the more innocuous "Troubled Asset Relief Program," or TARP. If members say it enough, it can eventually make it into media reports and then into everyday American terminology.
Perhaps House Democratic leadership is trying to get the term "public" out of people's minds since the term is at the heart of the debate on health care reform. Republicans seize on the word and say it's nothing short of a government takeover of the health care system. The word "public" also conjures to mind Medicare and Medicaid, truly public programs supported with taxpayer dollars.
Republican Leader John Boehner's spokesman Michael Steel says the new term won't do Democrats any good. "It didn't matter what they called Crystal Pepsi, no one wanted to drink it. No matter how the Democrats 're-brand' their government takeover of health care, the American people oppose it."
At the same time, with Reid's announcement that he'll proceed with a public option in the Senate where states could opt-out, House Democrats are more confident than ever that their health care bill will include some form of public option- or consumer option. Debates that raged last week over the public plan and doctor reimbursement rates are waved off by Democrats as minor differences that are now being worked through.
Speaker Pelosi spiced up the language there, too, calling competing public options "good choices."