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Obama on healthcare reform: Mr. Flexible

His idea of a public insurance plan to compete with private ones is meeting resistance. Will the alternative of health insurance 'cooperatives' suffice?

President Barack Obama conducts a town hall meeting on health care reform, Thursday at Southwest High School in Green Bay, Wis.

Gerald Herbert/AP

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It's crunch time on healthcare reform, and a clear theme is emerging from the White House: flexibility.

President Obama has launched an aggressive public effort for reform, laying out in broad terms what he would like in legislation – but no ultimatums on specifics. He has framed the debate as reform versus no reform, with a goal of lowered costs and a reduction in the ranks of the uninsured, now at 46 million Americans. Indeed, Mr. Obama's only requirement, say senators from both parties, is that Congress pass something.

In a town hall meeting in Green Bay, Wis., Thursday, Obama promoted creation of a new public insurance plan, designed to compete with private insurers and bring down costs. But that "public option" is on the ropes. Republicans object vehemently to the idea, arguing it could drive private insurers out of business and lead to a government-run health insurance system. The powerful American Medical Association, which Obama addresses on Monday in Chicago, also opposes the public insurance option.

GOP signals hope for 'cooperatives'

Already, key Senate Democrats are in flexibility mode, looking at an alternative: creation of nonprofit national, state, and regional health insurance "cooperatives." These entities would be run by their members, not the government, and designed to provide affordable coverage to small businesses and individuals. They would be subject to the same regulations as private insurers. The idea of cooperatives, proposed by Sen. Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota, has gotten an early thumbs-up from key Republicans, such as Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee.

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