As Montana Sen. Max Baucus leads the effort to reform health care, critics claim he's too beholden to the health insurance industry to usher in any big changes. Short of that, one Kalispell man asked the senator to at least make one small one.
Levente Csaplar walked into Baucus' Kalispell office several weeks ago and urged the staff to remove a portrait of former Montana Sen. Mike Mansfield, the state's longest serving and most revered congressman. Csaplar asserted that Baucus' "dithering" and "inadequate" work on health care reform hardly lives up to the example set by the man Baucus calls his hero, and the senator didn't deserve the picture.
"Baucus should be representing the country as a whole, or at least the state of Montana," Csaplar says. "He's in charge of probably one of the top three issues of our time, and he should not be giving as much credence to the people ripping us off—and they have been ripping us off for so long."
Csaplar's request, he says, upset Baucus' staffers, who left the photo on the wall.
Csaplar's frustration over the health care debate isn't limited to just Baucus. A few weeks after his episode at Baucus' office, Csaplar approached a group of "silver-haired" demonstrators outside the senator's office holding signs stating things like, "Stop Government-Sponsored Health Care!"
"I walked up and said, 'Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen. How many of you are on Medicare?' And about half of them raised their hands," he recalls. "And I said, 'Do you know that that's a government-sponsored program?' And they looked at each other like, 'That's not what Fox News told us. And Fox News said they're going to kill us when we're 70 years old.'"
The accidental health care reform advocate never envisioned himself as a conservative-bashing rabble-rouser. In fact, Csaplar, a 58-year-old Northwestern Mutual financial representative with a law degree, used to call himself a conservative, until the political position became synonymous with shrinking government to the point of impotency. He says voting for a candidate like Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush who chides big government "is like going to a brain surgeon who hates brain surgery to do your brain surgery. You've got to be stupid to do that."
Csaplar, who now refers to himself as an independent, says his frustration is a function of his firsthand knowledge of the health insurance business. He sold health insurance as part of his financial services business for about 10 years before deciding to stop because of his belief that insurance companies only suck money out of the health care system. Before that, he worked for a time in the University of North Carolina's managed care department, where he witnessed a system that rewarded less physician interaction with patients. In addition, his wife is a pediatrician and an internist.
When he looks at his personal situation, Csaplar calculates that, between the taxes and premiums he and his company paid for health insurance last year, his insurance coverage cost $32,720.
"Why should I pay three times?" he asks. "Why should I pay the state, why should I pay the federal government, and why should I pay the insurance company? It doesn't make sense. Let's get rid of two of those. I don't care which ones."
More than the inefficiencies and injustices of the current health care system, Csaplar counts himself among the Montanans of all political leanings outraged by dishonest efforts to preserve the current system.
"What [opponents] are basically doing," Csaplar says, "is they're trying to keep the buggy-whip manufacturers in business, because the buggy-whip manufactures—i.e., the health insurance companies—are fighting tooth and nail to get the last penny out of the American consumer. If the price of health care has doubled or tripled in the last I-don't-know-how many years—an average rate of between 7 and 12 percent a year—there's no way that health insurance companies can be in business 10 years from now, and they know that. But they want to squeeze the last penny out of you and me.
"They want to table this thing and get it out of the way," Csaplar continues, "because they're getting paid too much money to not fix the problem. There's too much money involved in this. That's the bottom line. If there weren't all those entrenched financial interests, this would not be an issue."
All of which explains why, according to Csaplar, the opposition labels reform as socialism, spreads mistruths about death panels and generally "throws up anything that'll stick to the wall," when, in fact, Medicare, Medicaid and the Veterans Health Administration, for example, are all single-payer, government-run systems that work.
And count Baucus complicit, Csaplar says, not because he spreads mistruths, but because he panders to those who do, and by doing so promotes the health of companies before the health of people.
"If you really want to make things better, then make them better," Csaplar says of Baucus. "Don't just keep the status quo going."
Csaplar obviously didn't expect the health care debate to change after he stormed into Baucus' office, but he did hope to make a point—and thinks he did. Legislators need to know the public's frustrated and the tenor of the reform discussion needs to improve, and he believes that starts with his senator.
"I'm not going to vote for him either way. He's lost my vote forever," says Csapler, before adding, "Unless he pulls this thing out..."