Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe is shaping up to be a pivotal player again in another national debate, this one over health care reform.

Some Democrats and President Barack Obama favor creating a public option for health care insurance that would compete with the private market. Snowe recently made headlines after announcing she’s open to the idea, with certain reservations.

She is the only Republican on the key Senate Finance Committee who seems willing to compromise with the Democrats. Republicans, meanwhile, have lined up staunchly against the idea, pointing out that Medicare and Medicaid are already on the path to insolvency, and that creating a public option would unfairly compete with large private insurers.

This will be a complex and emotional debate, as both sides try to sway the American people to their side. Misinformation and exaggerations are sure to fly as the two sides do battle.

Polls at this point show about 75 percent of Americans approve of a public option. But polling on such questions is often meaningless.

Poll takers never give respondents a true picture. For instance, would Americans still favor an extension of government benefits if it would increase their taxes?

And by what amount? $100 per year might sound OK, but how about $1,000 per year for the average family?

Would Americans still favor a public option if it meant paying income taxes on the employer-paid portion of their own health care benefits?

We doubt it. Americans are already unwilling to pay the full cost of the existing programs, like Medicare, Medicaid and the more recent federal drug benefit.

Those programs are already paying out way more in benefits than they are taking in.

Yet, if a public option isn’t the answer, what is?

It’s difficult to calculate the real “cost” of the deeply flawed system now in place. About 46 million Americans, many of whom work for a living, have no health care insurance.

Then there are those who would like to retire and would, if only they could find reasonably priced health care insurance.
Then there’s the impossible-to-calculate drag imposed upon our economy by our current health care system. We wonder how many people would be willing to launch their own small business, but realize they could never afford health insurance on their own.

How many people have a great business idea but are unwilling or unable to give up their employer-sponsored health benefits to try it?

How many people stick with a job they don’t like because they fear being rejected for insurance coverage by another employer over a pre-existing condition?

The lack of dependable, portable health insurance locks millions of Americans into jobs they might otherwise leave if they could only obtain reasonably priced coverage on their own.

Republicans are right in pointing out that it is difficult to imagine public and private insurance competing side-by-side. By it’s very nature, a public option would be designed to take current and potential business away from private insurers.
Yet, the current system seems inequitable, inefficient, unfair and much too costly. Americans are rightly fed up with the status quo.

We hope Snowe, her fellow Republicans and the president can find a compromise that works.

This problem is too important for the usual political gridlock to prevail.

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