Forty-six million — that’s roughly the number of Americans who are without health insurance. That number includes men and women, children and students, low-income families and middle-class workers between jobs, healthy individuals and those in need of medical care. With the current health care debate stalled by a steady current of misinformation and alarmism, President Barack Obama’s speech to Congress on Wednesday night was intended to be a rallying cry for the supporters of reform to come together and pass a bill. While there are many reforms that should be present in an ideal bill, it is the obligation of Congress to pass a health care reform bill that establishes a public health care option for all those Americans who have been losing out in the current system for decades.

While Congress has been debating a comprehensive health care reform bill for weeks, little progress has been made since conservative protest movements deeply opposed to health care reform hijacked the debate. These protests — coupled with declarations from uninformed, and politically motivated right-wing leaders — have succeeded in spreading outright lies about the proposed bill. These would include former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s infamous warning that the bill would establish “death panels” for senior citizens. Obama’s speech on Wednesday was an attempt to clear up these allegations and urge Congress to get back to the task at hand — assuring that all Americans have access to affordable health care.

The best way to do that is the public option. Creating a government alternative to the expensive, monopolistic private insurance companies is fundamentally necessary for millions of Americans who can’t afford coverage. As Obama noted in his speech, in much of the country there are only a few insurance companies to choose from. Conservatives — who claim that competition in the market is best — must recognize that for many Americans, there is no competition in the health care market, leading to prices that are unaffordable and plans that are incomplete. The public option would inject more competition into the market, improving the quality of available plans.

Opponents claim that private sector insurance plans won’t be able to compete with the government, turning health care into an entirely government run system. But a study by the Congressional Budget Office found that only about 5 percent of Americans would buy into the public option. What’s more, the private sector competes with the government in a number of different areas — including schools like this one and the mail system — without any harm being done to the private sector.

Despite worries that taxes will need to increase to pay for such a plan, Obama’s bill would be completely funded by the plan’s premiums. If the costs outweigh the revenue, then other parts of the budget would be trimmed to make up for any revenue shortcomings. And the $900 billion cost of the bill is hardly unthinkable when compared with other government expenditures like more than $800 billion already spent on the war in Iraq.

An ideal health care reform bill must also include regulations on the insurance industry that curtail unfair practices like dropping people from their plans once they get sick or placing caps on the amount of care that they can actually receive. But the most important component of health care reform is a public option to foster competition and make health insurance much more affordable for all.

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