What's all the fuss about? After all the noise over Democrats' push for a government insurance plan to compete with private carriers, coverage numbers are finally in: Two percent.
That's the estimated share of Americans younger than 65 who'd sign up for the public option plan under the health care bill that Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is steering toward House approval.
The underwhelming statistic is raising questions about whether the government plan will be the iron-fisted competitor that private insurers warn will shut them down or a niche operator that becomes a haven for patients with health insurance horror stories.
Some experts are wondering if lawmakers have wasted too much time arguing about the public plan, giving short shrift to basics such as ensuring that new coverage will be affordable.
"The public option is a significant issue, but its place in the debate is completely out of proportion to its actual importance to consumers," said Drew Altman, president of the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. "It has sucked all the oxygen out of the room and diverted attention from bread-and-butter consumer issues, such as affordable coverage and comprehensive benefits."
The Democratic health care bills would extend coverage to the uninsured by providing government help with premiums and prohibiting insurers from excluding people in poor health or charging them more. But to keep from piling more on the federal deficit, most of the uninsured will have to wait until 2013 for help. Even then, many will have to pay a significant share of their own health care costs.