[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/09/09/art.obama.address.5.gi.jpg caption ="Obama defends public option, but says he's open to alternatives."]
WASHINGTON (CNN) - President Barack Obama on Wednesday defended his proposal for government-run public health insurance as an option for consumers, saying it would force private insurers lower costs.
But Obama, in a speech to a joint session of Congress, called the provision one alternative for increasing competition for health insurance and signaled his openness to alternatives.
"I will not back down on the basic principle that if Americans can't find affordable coverage, we will provide you with a choice," he said, without specifying the public option. "And I will make sure that no government bureaucrat or insurance company bureaucrat gets between you and the care that you need."
Republicans are unanimous in opposing a public option, calling it an unfair competitor that would drive private insurers from the market and lead to a government takeover of health insurance. Obama rejected that claim as a false allegation intended to scare people.
"Let me be clear - it would only be an option for those who don't have insurance," he said. "No one would be forced to choose it, and it would not impact those of you who already have insurance. In fact, based on Congressional Budget Office estimates, we believe that less than 5 percent of Americans would sign up."
Obama called for a reasonable approach from both liberal Democrats who demand a public option and Republicans and some moderate Democrats who oppose the provision.
"To my progressive friends, I would remind you that for decades, the driving idea behind reform has been to end insurance company abuses and make coverage affordable for those without it," he said. "The public option is only a means to that end – and we should remain open to other ideas that accomplish our ultimate goal.
"And to my Republican friends, I say that rather than making wild claims about a government takeover of health care, we should work together to address any legitimate concerns you may have."