WASHINGTON – Apparently ready to abandon the idea, President Barack Obama's health secretary said Sunday a government alternative to private health insurance is "not the essential element" of the administration's health care overhaul.
The White House indicated it could jettison the contentious public option and settle on insurance cooperatives as an acceptable alternative, a move embraced by some Republicans lawmakers who have strongly opposed the administration's approach so far.
Officials from both political parties reached across the aisle in an effort to find compromises on proposals they left behind when they returned to their districts for an August recess. Obama has been pressing for the government to run a health insurance organization to help cover the nation's almost 50 million uninsured.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the White House would be open to co-ops instead of a government-run public option, a sign Democrats want a compromise so they can declare a victory on the must-win showdown.
"I think there will be a competitor to private insurers," she said. "That's really the essential part, is you don't turn over the whole new marketplace to private insurance companies and trust them to do the right thing. We need some choices, we need some competition."
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said co-ops might be a politically acceptable alternative as "a step away from the government takeover of the health care system" that the GOP has assailed.