The push for single-payer health care reform picked up more support in Montana this week when both a Republican and a Democrat endorsed the concept. That leaves Max Baucus, Montana's senior senator, standing almost alone in his refusal to consider, much less endorse, a single-payer system of universal health care.
Life-long Republican Bob Brown counted coup on the Democrats early this week by penning an insightful column on why single-payer makes the most sense for overhauling America's woefully broken health care system.
Brown, the former president of the state Senate and secretary of state before launching his gubernatorial challenge to Brian Schweitzer, relates the story of Matt Himsl, his mentor and former senatorial colleague. Himsl was known as "Mr. Republican" in the Flathead Valley. "In dramatic contrast to most Republicans now, he was an advocate of what today would be called a 'single payer' health care system," wrote Brown. "Matt told me this about 30 years ago, after a life-threatening experience with cancer. He said that he was a cancer survivor because he had been able to afford health care. He shared with me his belief that it was wrong in our great and civilized country that health care was not available to all Americans. He told me the only way that could be accomplished was through government."
Building on the historic references from his own life experiences, Brown was unequivocal in clarifying the significant difference between health insurance and health care. "Health insurance is not health care, and that is why people in other countries pay far less for universal medical care than we pay for our discriminating hodgepodge of health insurance."
Needless to say, Brown's column raised the eyebrows of today's Republicans who seem to see universal health care as a threat—a position Brown debunks by pointing out that United Parcel Service and the U.S. Post Office both continue to exist and improve thanks to the competition between them. Competition, writes Brown, "would have the same effect in health care, but in doing so would cut into the profit margin, encroaching on multimillion-dollar salaries and bonuses of insurance industry executives. That is what the private insurers are afraid of and that is what they are counting on their surgically targeted political contributions to protect. The competitive struggle in providing health care for all our citizens would lead to lower costs and better quality. What a concept. What are we waiting for?"
Meanwhile, Democratic Party Chair Dennis McDonald, who is seeking to challenge Republican Denny Rehberg for Montana's lone congressional seat, let fly with his own endorsement of single-payer, universal health care. "Families in Montana are struggling," wrote McDonald in his press release, "and right now we have the chance to seize on health care reform that will ensure everyone has access to the medical care they deserve. The rumors that we cannot afford a single-payer plan are false, rather, what we cannot afford is further delay."
McDonald's strong position on this seminal issue has significant political ramifications considering it is exactly opposite to Baucus' stance and Baucus maintains a lot of political weight in Montana thanks to the hundreds of millions of dollars he brings to the state through his powerful position as Chair of the Senate Finance Committee and the additional millions he spreads around in campaign contributions.
So why would McDonald, obviously following his own high-level political ambitions, take on the Baucus behemoth? The answer is likely found in Montana's large and growing number of single-payer supporters. Take the MEA-MFT, for instance, which is the state's largest labor union. Eric Feaver, MEA-MFT's president, took his own strong stand for single-payer during the rallies at Baucus' statewide offices earlier in June. "I think he has a very difficult job and he has 100 senators to work with that are not of one mind," Feaver said of Baucus. "But I am here to remind Sen. Baucus that MEA-MFT does have 18,000 members who live and work everywhere in this state and they all vote. And they have supported single-payer for many years."
Considering McDonald has a Democratic primary challenger in Missoula's Tyler Gernant, it makes sense for McDonald to get those 18,000 votes on his side as soon as possible. Toss in thousands more from Montanans for Single Payer and a host of other supporters, and McDonald's strategy becomes clear. Sure, his stance on health care will give Baucus conniptions, but McDonald has a primary to win here in Montana—and you do that with Demo voters who, by and large, support single-payer, universal health care.
One leading Democrat who is conspicuously absent from the debate is Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Many Montanans remember when Schweitzer took on Conrad Burns, rising from a political unknown to nearly unseat the incumbent senator. One of the pillars of Schweitzer's campaign was the cost of prescription drugs. At the time, Schweitzer took busloads of Montanans to Canada to buy the drugs they needed at vastly lower costs than they could get them in the United States—and Schweitzer vowed to address the issue when he went to Washington, D.C.
Well, as we all know, Schweitzer didn't go to Washington then and seems to have been passed over by the Obama administration now. But his position here in Montana remains prominent and one has to wonder if his former allegiance to health care for Montanans was merely campaign rhetoric. If the governor was really concerned, why is the silence from his office on this important issue so deafening?
Given the setback to Baucus' effort on health care reform over the whopping $1.6 trillion price tag for his plan, it would appear that new leaders are stepping forward here in Montana. Those new voices, both Republican and Democrat, are loudly saying, "We want single-payer." We've heard all the excuses, but Bob Brown asked the seminal question: "What are we waiting for?"
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.