Tester Talks Health Care at Kalispell Regional Medical Center

By Beacon Staff

Montana Sen. Jon Tester met with administrators and physicians at Kalispell Regional Medical Center last Friday evening to discuss health-care reform in talks that underscored how wide-ranging and deeply complex are the issues facing Congress as it attempts to hammer out a bill that increases coverage while controlling federal spending.

And though the summer was rife with raucous “town hall” meetings across the country where constituents concerned about the Congressional health care overhaul made headlines, the legislative process is proceeding apace. Tester told the KRMC staff the bill from the Senate Finance Committee, chaired by U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., could hit the Senate floor for debate and amendments as early as next week.

“I honestly hope we can get something done by Thanksgiving, but who knows,” Tester said. Though he doesn’t sit on any committees that have produced a health care bill, as a moderate Democrat Tester will wield considerable power when the legislation, considered among the chief priorities of the administration of President Barack Obama, hits the Senate floor.

While Baucus has seen his national profile raised dramatically, for better or worse, through his health care work, Tester has not been outspoken on the issue, repeatedly saying he would wait to see a final bill and analyze its cost before committing to any votes. He maintained that stance Friday, even when questioned about frustration by some on the left about his unwillingness to step up in support of the so-called “public option,” which would allow the government to sell insurance in competition with private industry.

“What they’ve got to realize is that if you commit to a public option, they put anything in front of you, you’ve got to vote for it. I want to see it; I’ll make sure it works,” Tester said of a bill containing the public option. “If it gets to the floor and it works for Montana I’ll support it. If it doesn’t, I won’t.”

The medical staff present at last Friday’s meeting did take the opportunity to talk to Tester about the areas where he can affect greater change as a member of committees dealing with Indian Affairs, Veterans Affairs and Appropriations. Michael Newman, medical director of the Pathways Treatment Center touted the treatment offered to veterans suffering from mental health problems or chemical dependency.

A nurse described the success of a new intensive care unit for newborns, but said the need for the unit already outstrips its capacity for treatment. Frank Garner, who heads KRMC’s in-home medical equipment service, told Tester the complexity of paperwork required for Medicare reimbursement was a substantial issue.

But the main issue the physicians present seemed to want to discuss was the need for malpractice reform. John Van Arendonk, a physician and medical director of the A.L.E.R.T. helicopter program, said he felt “disillusioned” by the lack of serious tort reform in any of the current health care bills, and that such a provision would go a long way toward reducing medical costs.

“For those of us who are in the trenches, taking care of patients, I’m here to tell you that defensive medicine adds a significant portion to the health care bill,” Van Arendonk said. “It’s really disconcerting to me that we’re looking at remaking the whole health care system and we’d still have lawyers breathing down our necks.”

Other doctors backed up Van Arendonk’s assertion, with some estimating that billions in medical spending could be saved with malpractice reform.

Pat Wilson, a human resources administrator at KRMC expressed her concern over the Employee Free Choice act, a bill that would make it easier for workers to form unions. Steven Thompson, a Semitool executive sitting in on the meeting, warned that proposed legislation to control carbon emissions, the so-called “cap-and-trade” bill, would put his company out of business.

According to Tester’s staff, this was the ninth health care meeting he has had with hospital staff around Montana so far, and after the meeting he said common themes do emerge: malpractice reform, Medicare reimbursement rates and the complexity of paperwork chief among them. Unlike other areas of Montana, Tester said the Flathead does not appear to have a difficult time drawing medical professionals to the area.

“Those things we’ll go back, we’ll revisit with Max (Baucus) what’s going on in the bill, and from a rural health care standpoint, just move forward,” Tester said.

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