Baucus Says He Will Lead Health-Care Overhaul

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Sen. Max Baucus says he will lead the effort to overhaul the nation’s health-care system, which he describes as overpriced and lacking consistent quality.

The Montana Democrat said he will not support a system in which the government covers all consumers equally, a system typically known as “single payer.”

“We are Americans; we’re different from Canada, we’re different than the United Kingdom,” he said Friday in referring to nations with some form of single-payer health care funded by the government. “We have to come up with a uniquely American solution, probably a combination of private and public coverage.”

Baucus, who is running for re-election Nov. 4 and is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said he expects health-care reform to be his leading priority next year.

He was at St. Peter’s Hospital in Helena to lead a discussion in which people offered opinions on what must be done to change health care and its financing.

Some physicians said the United States needs more primary-care doctors and fewer specialists.

“I think we specialists are overpaid for many of the things we do,” said William Ballinger, a retired dermatologist from Helena. He suggested that physicians receive set salaries, rather than payment based on procedures performed and patients seen.

The meeting Friday was one of 10 health-care gatherings that Baucus scheduled around the state to hear public comment. Sessions are scheduled through the end of October.

Baucus has not said whether he prefers health proposals by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama or Republican candidate John McCain. The Montana senator said he will work with the next president to resolve health-care problems and believes change may have to be incremental.

Baucus said 47 million people in the United States lack health insurance and in Montana during the past seven years, insurance premiums have risen at five times the rate of wages.

Speakers Friday included Helena pediatric dentist Kevin Rencher, who said scores of Montana children from low-income households go without dental care. Because of low payments through Medicaid, the government program of health care for the poor, dentists often limit how many Medicaid patients they will accept, Rencher said.

“In 2008, dental problems continue to be the most common chronic disease of childhood,” he said. “More kids miss school because of dental problems than any other problem.”

Rencher said that in the span of a week he saw several children, ages 3 to 8, who had badly infected teeth and required multiple crowns, extractions or fillings because their parents could not find a dentist who would see a Medicaid patient.

Some of the people in Baucus’s audience said Americans must take more personal responsibility for health by obtaining preventive care and decreasing use of sugar, alcohol and other substances. Helena resident Rachel Conn said she holds three jobs, lacks insurance and finds basic care and healthful food expensive.