In the battle over healthcare reform, Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the former Democrat turned independent, and Democratic Senators Max Baucus, Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu, Blanche Lincoln and Kent Conrad have at least two things in common. They all oppose a public option in healthcare reform, but each is nevertheless a fervent advocate of socialized medicine. How can Senate watchers make sense of this ideological contradiction?
Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid must get all six of these senators (or one renegade Republican) on board to pass a healthcare reform bill with the sixty votes needed to stop a filibuster. But although each of them recently voted to allow the Senate to debate the measure, they all say they oppose the public option President Obama supports. “I’ve already alerted the leader,” said Lincoln, “and I’m promising my colleagues that I’m prepared to vote against moving to the next stage of consideration as long as a government-run public option is included.”
“I don’t believe Americans want a government-run healthcare system,” Landrieu said in October. “I’m not for a government-run, national, taxpayer-subsidized plan, and never will be.” “People who support a public option,” Lieberman, who has also threatened a filibuster, recently said on CBS’s Face the Nation, “really want to have a government-controlled health insurance system. That’s their right. I think they’re wrong.”
For years, however, Lieberman and the five Democrats have been boosters of one of the world’s largest government-run healthcare programs–the Veterans Health Administration (part of the Department of Veterans Affairs, often just called the VA). Whereas Obama’s proposed “public option” plan, and even Medicare, is simply a government insurance scheme that pays private providers, the VA actually owns hospitals and clinics. Last year, the VA, which has a $45 billion budget, treated 5.1 million veterans at its 153 hospitals and 900 outpatient clinics throughout the country. The VA’s 200,000 employees, including 14,500 doctors and 60,000 nurses, are government employees. You don’t get much more “socialized” than that!
Lieberman has often voiced strong support for the VA. In 2002 he fought the Bush administration’s efforts to close VA facilities in Connecticut. In 2004 Lieberman co-sponsored a budget amendment that would have increased veterans’ medical care by $2.7 billion. The next year, he helped pass $1.5 billion in supplemental funds to the VA to meet the growing medical needs of military retirees and the Iraq War. In 2007 Lieberman said, “Our nation has no greater moral and patriotic responsibility than to ensure that these brave Americans receive first-class treatment–not only immediately after their injuries but for their entire lives–through the Veterans Administration.”
Likewise, the five Senate Democrats who are still sitting on the fence on the public option support VA hospitals and clinics without waffling or hedging. Earlier this month, for example, Lincoln issued a statement, posted on her website, declaring that she is “Fighting to improve heath care for servicemembers and veterans by providing the VA with the biggest funding increase in its history, which has allowed the VA to better meet its current and future challenges by making needed investments in quality health care, expanding access and improving delivery of care, and enhancing numerous benefits provided to the estimated 257,000 Arkansas veterans and their families.”