The Final Sprint for Health Care Has Now Begun, and Where the White House is Placing Its Bets.

The real political race for health care has just begun. The significance of the president's speech to Washington insiders was its signal about where the White House is placing its bets and its support. More on this in a moment. First, let's be clear about who's racing and why. Think of the speech as the starting gate of a two-month sprint between two competitors -- and they're not Democrats and Republicans.

On one side are America's biggest private insurers and Big Pharma. They're drooling over the prospect of tens of millions more Americans buying insurance and drugs because the pending legislation will require them to, or require employers to cover them. The pending expansion of Medicaid will also be a bonanza. Amerigroup Corp., UnitedHealth Group Inc. and other companies that administer Medicaid are looking at 10 million more customers. Healthcare Inc.’s Medicaid enrollment is expected to jump by 43 percent, according to its CEO. WellPoint Inc., the largest U.S. insurer, is also looking at big gains.

But the big insurers hate the idea of a public option because it will squeeze their profits. A true public option will force private insurers to compete in markets where there's now very little competition, and also have the bargaining power to force drug companies to offer lower prices. Big Pharma also wants to prevent Medicare and Medicaid from having the power to negotiate lower prices, for the same reason. Private insurers and Big Pharma would rather fudge the question of where the savings will come from or how all this will be paid for. They certainly don't want to pay for wider coverage with a surtax on the rich, because, hey, their executives and shareholders are mainly rich.

More after the jump.

--Robert Reich

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