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Originally published Friday, September 4, 2009 at 12:08 AM

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'Trigger' pitched for public option

Looking to break the logjam on health-care legislation, White House officials and Senate Democrats are increasingly placing their hopes on the idea of a "trigger" that, if set off, would allow the government to offer health insurance to many Americans.

Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Looking to break the logjam on health-care legislation, White House officials and Senate Democrats are increasingly placing their hopes on the idea of a "trigger" that, if set off, would allow the government to offer health insurance to many Americans.

Advocates think the trigger idea could win over several moderate Republican and wavering Democratic senators, who do not want to give the government blanket authorization to enter the insurance market and compete with private companies.

"This is the best shot we've got for getting a public option," said one House Democratic adviser, who requested anonymity. "It's better than nothing."

Under a trigger, private insurance companies would be told to meet bench marks for improving the health system, such as insuring more Americans and reducing health-care costs. If they failed to do so by a certain deadline, a government-run program would begin offering health insurance.

The proposal has long been part of the health-care discussions in Congress. But it has drawn new attention, because it has become a central focus of negotiations between President Obama's staff and Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, a moderate Republican.

If Snowe supported a health-care overhaul bill, she potentially could bring a patina of bipartisanship to the measure, providing political cover to other moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats who have thus far withheld their support.

Suggestions that Obama might support a trigger were welcomed by the influential, 52-member coalition of Blue Dog House Democrats, fiscal conservatives who generally are not sold on Obama's health-care plans.

"The trigger is something the Blue Dogs have supported from the beginning," said Brad Howard, spokesman for Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., who heads the Blue Dogs' health-care task force.

By supporting a trigger, Obama could still make the argument to liberal Democrats that he has not abandoned the prospect of a government-run plan, also called a "public option," which much of the House Democratic leadership have said must be part of any health-care legislation.

Talks between the White House and Snowe have focused on what developments would set off the trigger and begin the government's entry into the insurance market. Private insurers could keep the government out of the market if they met bench marks in several areas. Those might include expanding the number of Americans who have health-insurance coverage and reducing health-care costs.

White House officials declined to comment on the negotiations with Snowe.

On Thursday, aides to Snowe confirmed that the senator is talking with administration officials about her "safety-net fallback option" where the government would sponsor a nonprofit insurance plan but it would become available only in states or regions where private insurance firms had failed to offer a product that would be affordable to 95 percent of the population.

Material from The Washington Post is included in this report.

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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