Making the public option optional

MAKING THE PUBLIC OPTION OPTIONAL…. Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R) of Texas has been one of the leading right-wing agitators against health care reform. It was a little odd, then, to see Armey accidentally tell The Economist that the public option may be a good idea.

“If you in fact freely choose to enroll in Medicare that’s a wonderful gift, it’s a charity, it’s something I applaud. But when they force you in, that’s tyranny.”

The Economist added, “In arguing against the Democrats’ plan, he says that Medicare is a form of tyranny, and that citizens should be able to choose to enroll in the program. This choice, between a public plan and private ones, is precisely what the Democrats propose in a public option.”

Right. No one is proposing a public option that Americans would be “forced” into. That’s why it’s called an “option.” It denotes something “optional.” Eligible Americans would be able to choose whether to “opt” in or out. “Optional” and “mandatory,” in the English language, are opposites.

And yet, this seems to come up all the time. Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), the Blue Dog point-man on health care, said last week he would not vote for a plan that would “force government-run healthcare on anyone. Period.” He added that the public plan would be “strictly … an option.” The fact that he had to make the not-so-bold declaration in the first place suggests he’s been running into some folks who believe they would be forced into a public plan.

With that in mind, I have two suggestions going forward. First, reform proponents should probably start telling the public that even Dick Armey thinks the idea of a public option sounds like “a wonderful gift.”

And second, Democrats should declare, publicly and loudly, that in response to popular demand, they’ve decided to make the public plan purely optional. Conservatives drive a hard bargain, but reform proponents are not above compromise. As this item, posted by Josh Marshall, put it, “I think Obama should use all the fictional friction points as bargaining chips. You want us to give up the tyranny of compulsory coverage? You win, Dick Armey. Will you support the bill now?”