A REGISTERED NURSE from Texas had always paid her health-insurance premiums. Then she got breast cancer. Her insurance company refused to pay for her treatment, claiming that a previous trip to a dermatologist for acne was a pre-existing condition.

When an Illinois man was diagnosed with stage-four lymphoma, his insurance was canceled for not disclosing what he himself didn't know: a note in his file that a CT scan showed a small aneurysm and "insignificant gallstones."

These shocking stories were recounted at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing last week on the practice called "rescission" - canceling patients' individual insurance policies because of alleged pre-existing conditions.

Even more shocking was the unanimous answer given by three health-insurance company executives when asked if they would commit to not canceling insurance policies except for instances of intentional fraud: Hell, no.

Is there a better argument for a government-funded alternative to private insurance?

Yet, also last week, Democrats with pre-existing conditions like weak knees and limp spines were backing away from the "public option" that is essential to a meaningful overhaul of the health-care system, touching off panic attacks among those whose lives and livelihoods depend on change.

We could do with a few milligrams of Cymbalta ourselves when we consider: A preliminary outline of the legislation leaked to the press from the Senate Finance Committee chaired by noted waffler Max Baucus, D-Mont., did not include a public option. And former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle - President Obama's first choice to lead the fight for health-care reform until tripped up by unpaid taxes - last week raised the white flag without a fight. He joined with three other former Senate majority leaders to propose a "bipartisan" - read "weak" - plan without a public option.

Baucus and Daschle were only the most prominent of several Democrats who appeared to be wavering, even though three - count 'em, three - polls in the last three days found that overwhelming majorities of Americans support a government-funded alternative to private health insurance: 72 percent in a New York Times/CBS poll; 76 percent from NBC/Wall Street Journal; an astonishing 83 percent in a poll sponsored by corporations and organizations that have opposed health-care reform in the past.

It is a symptom of a serious malady in this country when three-quarters of Americans want something and barely a majority of the U.S. Senate is willing to give it to them.

Attention was focused last week on potential Democratic defectors since almost no Republicans support true reform. But the real power still remains with President Obama and members of Congress who support health care as a right, including Philadelphia's U.S. Reps. Chaka Fattah and Bob Brady, as well as Sen. Robert P. Casey. They must be clear that they won't vote for a charade of health-care reform. And they must be prepared to pass true reform legislation even with only 51 votes in the Senate. Let the rest explain why they abandoned their constituents on this issue.

Want to help? Contact your representatives, and urge them to hang tough.

This is the time for the president to open that bulging wallet, take out a wad of political capital and spend it: He should make the case for a public option, rally its supporters and follow through with pressure on the faint-hearted. Americans who get sick should not have to choose between death and financial ruin. *