A public meeting held by the staff of Sen. Max Baucus in Whitefish last week revealed how fractious, complex and politically disparate is public opinion in the Flathead regarding the attempt by Montana’s senior senator to spearhead legislation providing universal health care coverage.
Roughly 90 people crammed into a room on the North Valley Hospital campus to pepper with questions William Dauster, deputy staff director and general counsel for the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, which Baucus chairs, as part of a 19-city listening tour across Montana by staff of the Democratic senator aimed at fielding questions and hearing opinions on health care reform.
Baucus plans to consider health care reform legislation in the Finance Committee as early as June, debate it on the floor of the Senate later this summer, and have the bill on the president’s desk for signing by the end of the year, Dauster said.
Many participants questioned why Baucus isn’t seriously entertaining so-called “single payer” health care as an option, in the model of Canada and Great Britain, where the government or an entity similar to Medicare administers health care. But other comments described the perils and flaws inherent in those “socialized” health care systems. Several local physicians were also present in the crowd to offer their first-hand feedback on the changes necessary in the American health care system.
Through much of the two-hour debate, Dauster indicated any health care bill to emerge from Congress would be of a “public-private” model that allows those pleased with their current coverage to keep it, while also offering an option to citizens who cannot currently afford coverage.
Tying the issue of health care reform closely to the recession, Dauster noted that health care spending in the U.S. is predicted to double from its present level of $2.2 trillion to $4.4 trillion by 2020, and that the average American family is projected to spend half of its budget on health care by 2016.
In recent weeks Baucus has been heckled by single payer supporters while he was leading committee hearings on health care, and at the Whitefish meeting it was clear many in the room supported that option. A key reason behind the concept’s popularity seemed to be that it would remove from the health care system insurance companies – which were blasted by those attending the meeting.
“The insurance companies do not need to be involved in this,” said Mary Reckin, who criticized efforts aimed at including insurance companies and the private sector in health care reform. “These other things, God bless them, they’re band-aid things and they just won’t work.”
But Bob Fousek said single payer systems, like those used in Great Britain and Canada are “failing,” and he feared a health care system in America that ran like Amtrak, or the U.S. Postal Service.
“Why should we believe in you people to do better?” Fousek said.
Some in the audience also questioned whether the amount of campaign contributions Baucus has received from the insurance industry plays any role in the senator’s reluctance to consider a single payer system. Baucus is the third highest recipient of contributions from the insurance industry in the Senate, according to a study by the group Consumer Watchdog.
“Max needs to step up and be a leader, not a follower – not follow the money,” Larry Alexander of Columbia Falls said. “We need to eliminate consideration of the insurance companies from being a primary player in this debate.”
Dauster described the “public-private” option, however, as the one most likely to pass through Congress, given that it falls in line with traditional American partnerships between public and private entities, and remains more politically palatable to some Republicans and red-state Democrats made “squeamish” by the single payer option.
“We are trying to find a consensus that will keep together as many people as possible,” Dauster said.
“It’s hard to figure out how you get to 60 votes for a public health care system,” he added. “It’s hard to see how you get to 60 votes for a plan that doesn’t have a public portion either.”
Dr. Lisa Fleischer, a family practice physician in Kalispell, said significant savings in the health care system could be reaped through three changes: decreasing the amount of time and money emergency rooms spend treating non-emergencies and transitioning to greater use of hospice care for end-of-life patients too commonly kept alive through treatment that leaves them in discomfort and even pain. Tort reform is also a necessary component of improving the U.S. health care system to cut back on lawsuits against physicians, Fleischer added, a sentiment echoed by other medical practitioners present.
But Dauster seemed most affected by Hal Trost, an unemployed carpenter in Whitefish. Trost is currently paying for health care under Cobra, but despite being in good health, fears he will not be able to find health insurance he can afford because he is 60.
“It’s very frustrating that because I’ve been this good person and always made these payments, now all of a sudden I’m trash,” Trost said.
Dauster replied: “If we can’t deal with folks like you then we will have failed.”
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