Montana Senate Acts to Undermine Federal Health Care

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Two Republican bills aimed at undermining federal health care reform advanced Wednesday in the state Senate despite objections that one of the measures may itself be unconstitutional.

Republicans in control of the Legislature have made their opposition to the federal health care reform a priority this legislative session.

A long list of GOP bills aim to stymie implementation that in many cases will have to be done by state agencies. Republicans are also advancing ideas they prefer, such as limiting lawsuits against doctors.

One measure endorsed by the Senate on Wednesday tells the attorney general to join an ongoing lawsuit from other states challenging the federal law, despite objections that the plan could run up against the state Constitution by trying to give an order to the attorney general.

One lawsuit from the states has met with some initial success but is widely expected to be settled in the U.S. Supreme Court.

The other measure endorsed by the Senate bars state government agencies from implementing the federal requirement to purchase health insurance.

The GOP holds a 28-22 majority in the chamber and both measures advanced easily. They face one more largely procedural vote before going to the House. Some others were getting committee hearings Wednesday, including plans to spend nearly $40 million a year on tax breaks for unreimbursed medical costs and those buying high deductible health insurance plans.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer has not said how we will respond to a long list of health care bills planned by the Republicans.

Sen. Jason Priest, R-Red Lodge, objected to claims his bill to direct the attorney general to join the lawsuit is unusual, or unconstitutional.

Democrats, backed by analysis from a legislative staff attorney, said the order has never been so specific before and could breach separation of powers provisions. The attorney general could ignore the order, they argued.

“What are we going to do? Sue him?” asked Sen. Larry Jent, D-Bozeman. “What are we going to do, have a case that says the state of Montana versus the state of Montana? If that sounds ridiculous, it is because it is.”

Attorney General Steve Bullock, a Democrat, has not said how he would respond.

Republicans argue the health care reform will impose a huge cost on the state, such as by requiring the state to pay more for its share of programs like Medicaid. They said the state must do what it can to buck the plan.

Sen. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, sponsored the bill barring the state from implementing the individual insurance mandate portion of federal health care reform.

“It is the largest social program this country has seen in 45 years, that’s what is unprecedented,” he said.

Democrats argue the mandate is not popular with many people from both sides of the aisle but was necessary in order to get the insurance industry to agree to other aspects of consumer-friendly aspects of reform, such as a ban on the companies denying those with pre-existing conditions.

“This was the industry deal to go along with health care reform,” said Sen. Christine Kaufmann. “They should have been in the committees defending their part of this deal.”

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