Although it has been hinted at for weeks, this Sunday the Obama administration made its biggest hedge of support for the “public plan”.  On CNN’s State of the Union Sunday night, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the public plan “is not the essential element” to health care reform for the administration.  She also signaled potential support for the co-ops plan being considered in the Senate Finance Committee.

Sebelius reiterated on the program that the essential components for any health care plan that would be supported by the White House are choice and competition.  Her remarks came one day after the President at a town hall in Montana called the public plan “one sliver” of overall health care reform.

Update: White House and Congressional officials clarified Secretary Sebelius’ comments, saying that the administration still supports the public plan but does not consider it the most important part of reform.

The Senator who initially proposed the co-op proposal, Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND), said on Fox News Sunday that the public plan did not have enough support in the Senate, and his co-op proposal was the only plan that could attract enough votes to pass comprehensive health care reform.  He also reiterated that the co-ops that would be established would be nonprofit and member-run.  On the same program, Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) expressed tentative support for the co-op proposal, lending credence to the idea that co-ops can be a bipartisan proposal.  You can read more details on the co-op proposal here.

The problem with the co-op proposal from a political standpoint comes from some members of the Democratic caucus.  Last month, members of the Progressive Caucus sent a letter to the House leadership stating that the letter’s 60 signatories would not support any comprehensive health care bill without a public option.  Yesterday, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) told CNN that a public plan was an essential element for liberal support for a bill.  “The only way we can be sure that very low-income people and persons who work for companies that don’t offer insurance have access to it, is through an option that would give the private insurance companies a little competition,” she said.

Quick Hits

Politico reports that a revised timeline for House passage of health care has been released.  Merging of the three committee bills is about 80-85% done, and the new target date for passage is the end of September… The Senate is still looking to hold to the September 15 deadline for a Finance Committee deal, and a possible deadline for floor passage would be right before Columbus Day… Is the administration’s promise that a new plan would allow everyone to keep their insurance accurate? asks The Washington Post.