Tester Says Maybe to ‘Public Option’

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – U.S. Sen. Jon Tester told seniors on Wednesday that he may yet support a health care bill that lets people buy into a government insurance plan if they choose — but said he wants to first make sure it works.

Tester spoke to AARP members on a conference call and many of the callers were worried about Medicare costs that keep going up at a rate they can’t afford on fixed retiree incomes. One caller quizzed Tester about “being cool” to the plans brewing in Congress to attach a so-called public option to the health care overhaul bill.

“I’m not cool to it at all. I think the bottom line is that it has to work for Montana families,” Tester said. “I can tell you that ultimately we need competition and if we can get a public option that is affordable … I am going to end up supporting it.”

In Washington D.C., Democrats are working out their own differences on such issues as whether to include the option for a government insurance plan in the final bill. Tester has yet to commit to such a specific plan, and neither has the state’s senior senator, Democrat Max Baucus.

Baucus led a committee effort to draft a bill capable of getting at least one Republican vote. It favored insurance co-ops as a way to foster competition with insurance companies.

Tester said his main goal is a health care plan that is stable, sustainable over time, does not increase the national debt and is affordable for families. A public option could pass muster, he said. “I just want to make sure we keep my options open, so that it all works for Montana,” Tester said.

“I am certainly not cool to it, I just want to make sure in the end that the thing will work.”

Tester primarily assured seniors on the call that the reform plans will help reduce their costs. The Democratic senator said that Medicare is on fragile ground because the overall health care system is not sustainable. He said reform efforts will rein in overall costs, which will help Medicare.

“The current system is not sustainable. Doing nothing is not an option,” Tester said.

While moderate Democrats dicker with their more liberal colleagues, Republicans are stiffening their opposition to the evolving health care plan.

Tester made it clear he won’t get in the way of overall reform efforts — suggesting that he will not support possible Republican efforts to prevent a Senate bill from coming to a vote — even if he is not yet committing to details. He predicted the final plan will need to be perfected in coming years as issues are worked out.

“Ultimately, in the end, we need stability in the health care system, the kind of stability that is not going to break the bank,” Tester said. “I can tell you that as we go through this health care reform debate, we are going to make sure that Medicare is stronger when we come out the other side.”