Ravell Call, Deseret News
Marianna Wilson, right, holds a candle as health care reform activists take part in a vigil.

A group of about 20 health care reform advocates huddled against the cold Tuesday evening to rally support for the public option portion of proposals that have been wending their way through Congress.

Local members of the political action group MoveOn.org said the flames were lit in part to commemorate the 2,547 Americans who each day are forced into bankruptcy directly or in part because of medical debt.

The gathering was held just before the Associated Press reported that Senate Democratic leaders have agreed to drop the public option from reform legislation.

"We're also here to show that the majority of Americans — and the majority of Utahns — are in favor of giving people a real choice for their health care coverage by adding a public option to people who are now overwhelmed by a system that is unfair to working Americans who are falling through the cracks of the system," said MoveOn.org spokeswoman Lydia Olchoff.

Participants wrote a personal note and put it into a prescription pill bottle to Sens. Orrin Hatch and Robert Bennett, both R-Utah and public option opponents, asking them to stand up and do everything in their power to pass health care reform "that provides the choice of a real public option," Richard Lafon told the group.

"We can't allow a few of our senators to derail what the majority of Americans want and need," Lafon said.

The public option would provide access to insurance coverage to people who are not poor enough to be covered by the government's Medicaid insurance plan but can't afford regular private insurance premiums. Between 30 million and 50 million Americans, depending on how the numbers are parsed, fall into that category.

Opponents of the measure say private insurers would lose customers in droves because the government option is likely to offer much cheaper premiums, even after private insurers design new and improved health care plans to cover the uninsured.

"That's not going to happen," Rep. David Litvack, D-Salt Lake, said at the end of the meeting. "Saying that kind of thing is just another example of how rhetoric, not real health care reform debate, has dominated the discussion."

Litvack, a member of the Legislature's Health Care System Reform Task Force that is revamping Utah's system of care, said having the choice of a public option is the real, workable way to help reduce costs and expand access to care for the hundreds of thousands of Utahns now shut out.

Public option proponents say it would help cut costs because people who don't have insurance wait until an illness becomes so serious that they have to seek treatment at an emergency room where care costs roughly 10 times a visit to the doctor's office.

More than 70 percent of Americans and 86 percent of Democrats in Congress support the public option choice.

On the other side, big insurance companies and health maintenance organizations have been spending $5 million per week to defeat health care reform, particularly the public option.

e-mail: jthalman@desnews.com