One Hot August for Health Care Reform

By Beacon Staff

The Congressional August recess will surely offer some relief to Montana’s federal lawmakers, grateful to leave Washington D.C.’s swampy, late-summer climate for the cool, dry breezes of their home state. But at this particular juncture in American politics, the old cliché, “out of the frying pan and into the fire” might be the overriding sentiment facing Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, and Rep. Denny Rehberg as their jets touch down on the Montana tarmac.

Over the course of the last six months, Baucus, a Democrat and chair of the Senate Finance Committee, has been thrust into the national spotlight as the man upon whose shoulders the burden of crafting health care overhaul legislation largely rests. Tester, also a Democrat, unveiled an ambitious bill last month designating more wilderness alongside mandated logging work that has drawn substantial criticism from some environmentalists.

Rehberg, meanwhile, has the opportunity to join Republicans across the country intent on impressing upon their constituents the cost and lack of sustainability the GOP sees as implicit in the agenda of the Democrats, who currently control both branches of Congress and the presidency.

But far and away, the focus of the nation is going to be on the fate of the health care overhaul legislation currently before Congress, and Baucus’ central role in the proceedings creates the potential for August to be one of the most politically frenetic months in Montana since the prolonged Democratic presidential primary last May.

At the center of the storm, Baucus will be hearing from those who fear health care legislation won’t do enough to improve the system, along with those opposed to greater government involvement in medical care. As of last week, the group Montanans for Single-Payer planned to protest outside a “Camp Baucus” fundraiser in Big Sky. A donation of $2,500 or more was the price of admission for contact with Baucus and his staff. Advocates of a single-payer system, which would extend Medicare-type coverage to everyone and which has been taken off the negotiating table by Baucus, planned to picket outside.

At the other end of the ideological spectrum, the group Americans for Prosperity, which opposes the health care legislation currently under negotiation, has scheduled bus tours across the U.S. to generate a push back against the direction in which the bill is heading. Its bus will spend two days in Montana, arriving in Forsyth Aug. 14 and passing through 11 communities in the state before heading south into Wyoming.

Amy Menefee, communications director for Americans for Prosperity, said the organizers on the bus will be gathering signatures for a petition “asking members of Congress not to increase the role of government in health care” and encouraging citizens to ask their representatives to vote against the bill.

“The more details come out, the less people like what they’re hearing,” Menefee said. “Now is the time to stand up and tell them we need to go in a different direction.”

Kalispell physician Ann Bukacek, part of the conservative Coalition to Protect Patient Rights, said she is also working on gaining a meeting with Baucus this month after speaking with him briefly in Washington D.C. in July. Bukacek, an internist who opposes the health care reform bills before Congress, said she had only time to speak one sentence to Baucus, and recalled telling him, “If you want to find solutions to problems, you have to go after the root cause and the root cause is government involvement in health care.”

Bukacek conceded there are inefficiencies in the current health care system that could be improved, but as for the legislation currently proposed, she is skeptical.

“I, personally, would rather they bag the whole thing,” she said, but added that other members in the Coalition to Protect Patient Rights don’t necessarily share that view.

Those who support health care reform, and want a more drastic overhaul than what appears to be emerging from the Senate Finance Committee, are working just as hard to make their voices heard.

Bob Struckman, a spokesman for the Service Employees International Union, and other left-leaning groups that support a public option in the health care overhaul, rented an ambulance with a sign reading “Emergency Drive for Montana’s Middle Class” in which they traveled from city to city in central Montana, collecting letters from Montanans describing their health care problems. Struckman planned to deliver the letters to Tester’s Glendive office. The groups also staged an event in Big Sandy, in hopes of having their picture in the paper when Tester arrives home.

Struckman said he was shocked at how many Montanans he has encountered who can’t access, or can’t afford, adequate medical care: “You come across some desperate cases and they’re everywhere.”

Groups like Health Care for America Now! and the Center for Rural Affairs are also canvassing the state, encouraging citizens to write to Baucus and Tester urging support for a public option in health care legislation.

On the liberal blog “Daily Kos” and the Montana-based “Left in the West” blog, a posting notes an Aug. 8 fundraiser for Tester at Baucus’ Sieben ranch north of Helena where supporters of the public option are considering trying to overwhelm the event with numbers.

“How many people can we organize to show up and pay $50 to publicly and pointedly tell Max – at a fundraiser he is hosting, and we pay to get into – that the overwhelming majority of Americans that want a public option do not believe that public policy that preserves the insurance industries monopoly is in the interests of the country?” the diarist engine17 wrote. “If 1,000 progressives showed up, and others donated in a recognizable way, it would be a spectacular way to send Jon love while simultaneously smacking Max upside the head.”

But will Tester and Baucus be available to receive any of this feedback? As of this writing, staffers for the senators were still working out schedules for the August recess. Spokesman Aaron Murphy said Tester plans to participate in a water symposium with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar Aug. 10, and will hold a number of public listening sessions throughout the month, but dates and locations have yet to be worked out.

Baucus will be at the water symposium, as well as an Aug. 9 rural health and wellness seminar in Bozeman that is mostly unrelated to health care legislation before Congress. But dates and venues for other meetings with the public aren’t scheduled yet, according to spokesman Ty Matsdorf.

“He is always happy to get back home, to hear from his bosses, and get his marching orders,” Matsdorf said in a statement. “Input from Montanans is vital to helping Max better serve the state, and he will definitely bring this input back to the table to help craft health care.”

Rehberg, meanwhile, has announced 16 listening sessions all over the state, but it’s possible he will remain outside the fray of the August health care fight. Groups in support of a public option and more extensive health care reform seem unlikely to expend resources attempting to change Rehberg’s mind on legislation he appears unlikely to support, at this point. And those opposed to the health care bills aren’t working Rehberg too hard either.

Bukacek’s coalition hasn’t tried to reach Rehberg, she said, “because we’re on the same page.”

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