If the health care bill does not have a public option, it should not pass, Howard Dean ’71, the former head of the Democratic National Committee, said in a Pierson College Master’s Tea on Monday.

Dean, who also served as the governor of Vermont from 1991 to 2003 and ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 2004 — explained to an audience of 50 students that the new health care bill, if it has the public option intact, would allow young adults to have stable health insurance in the future, regardless of the job economy. But he added that the bill, currently awaiting approval by the Senate, continues to funnel taxpayer’s money into the health insurance industry, which does not effectively use the money as government-run health care would.

“The only decent part of this bill is the public option,” Dean said. “If we don’t have choice, this bill is worthless and should be defeated.”

Under the public option, private health insurance companies would compete with a government-sponsored alternative, similar to Medicare. In the form of the bill currently being considered in the Senate, states can opt out of the public option.

He said the public option is particularly important to college students who are about to enter the real world. He said the current bills should allow young adults to opt in to a Medicare program and enable them to have some form of publicly sponsored health care. The private insurance sector does not guarantee this stability, Dean said, because as young people change and lose jobs, they will be uninsured when seeking jobs.

“If you are in a public option, like Medicare, you’d all pay the same, no one can deny you, no one can kick you off,” he said. “You can take it anywhere you want.”

The Senate bill will not by itself affect the health care system significantly, he said. Rather, cost-cutting and other improvements will come from the states and their citizens, who will frame their own insurance policies.

For example, in Dean’s home state of Vermont, he said, legislators have enacted laws to ensure that all constituents pay about the same health insurance rate and that no one is denied health care because of poor health. He added that because of a state program, Vermont families with an annual income of less than $66,000 currently can pay a fee to the state to enable children under the age of 18 to opt into Medicaid. As a result, 99 percent of children under 18 in Vermont have health insurance.

One audience member asked Dean how the federal government will fund the bill amid the economic downturn. Dean said in order to get more services, the American people would need to pay more.

Pierson Master Harvey Goldblatt, a native of Canada, where there is government-sponsored health care, said after the Tea that the thought of Piersonites entering the workforce without health insurance disturbed him.

Still, of the seven students interviewed after the tea, two said Dean’s approach to health care reform did not completely solve the problem.

Edmund Burke MED ’10 said that although the bill shifts government costs to cover health care reform, it does not adequately cut costs in the health care system. Burke said the only way to eliminate excess spending would be through a set of “clear, evidence-based guidelines” for medical practices, which the reform bill does not create.

Justin Berk ’10 added that he is frustrated that the American people require more “knowledge of politics than health care” to understand the bill.

Still, Dean, formerly a practicing physician, said that although the bill does not present many substantial changes to the current health care system, a change is needed, and the bill provides a place to start.

“The only way to have reform is to try something,” he said.

Dean, who recently published a book on health-care reform, currently co-teaches a Pierson College seminar about the daily lives of politicians.