By Kip Sullivan, JD | PNHP

The New York Times reported on Saturday, October 17, that Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) is warning his constituents that the “public option” is not going to be available to the great majority of Americans. No one who has actually read the Senate health committee’s “reform” bill or the House “reform” bill (HR 3200) disputes this. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the “option” will be available only to about 30 million people, or about one American in ten. As the Times put it (slightly inaccurately), the “option” in the Democrats’ legislation “would be out of bounds to the approximately 160 million people already covered through employers.”

Does the public understand this? According to Wyden, they don’t. Wyden says his constituents are shocked when they are told the “option” will not be available to the vast majority of Americans. When he began informing his constituents about this truth last summer, “They nearly fell out of the bleachers,” he said (“And the public option is….,” New York Times, October 17, 2009, A10).

Democrats and “option” advocates should pay attention to Wyden’s observation. Wyden is saying, in so many words, that “option” advocates, with help from the media and the blogosphere, have fooled the public into thinking everyone will be eligible to buy insurance from the “option,” and when the public finds out this isn’t true, they’re not going to be happy.

I was not surprised by Wyden’s observation. I have written several papers warning the public that they have been the object of a “bait and switch” campaign by the leadership of the “option” movement. The “bait” in this campaign was the original version of the “option” promoted by Jacob Hacker. This version would have created an enormous public program that would have insured half the non-elderly population. Among several provisions of this first version of the “option” that would have ensured large size was one that said the “option” had to be available to all non-elderly Americans. The “switch” occurred when Democrats on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee and three chairmen of House committees drafted legislation that would create a very small and weak “option.” One of the provisions in the Democrats’ legislation that ensured their version of the “option” would be weak was a provision limiting subsidies and eligibility for the “option” to a small fraction of the population, namely, the uninsured and employees of small firms.

After reading Wyden’s warning, I examined over 50 polls to see if any pollsters had bothered to investigate the issue Wyden is raising. It would be interesting, I thought, to see if (a) pollsters had allowed themselves to be fooled by the bait-and-switch campaign for the “option” and (b), to the extent that they hadn’t been fooled, what did they find out about how badly the average American had been fooled?

I discovered that the nation’s best known polling firms have allowed themselves to be fooled. Pollsters are asking the public the wrong question. They are asking the public to comment on Hacker’s original version of the “option” (the “bait”), not the actual “option” proposed in the Senate HELP Committee bill and HR 3200. Not surprisingly, the polls tell us very little about whether the public thinks the “option” will be available to everyone or to just a small minority.

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