How’s Your Health?

By Kellyn Brown

An interesting thing happened when House Republicans voted overwhelmingly in favor of the so-called “Path to Prosperity” budget plan: Montana Congressman Denny Rehberg didn’t. He was one of just four GOP congressmen to vote against Rep. Paul Ryan’s, R-Wis., proposal. Why would the reliably conservative Rehberg oppose Ryan’s plan aimed at deficit reduction? The answer seems to be that changes to Medicare included in the legislation are too politically toxic to support in the run-up to Rehberg’s high-profile challenge of Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in 2012.

In a statement after the vote, Rehberg said there were “too many unanswered questions with regard to Medicare reform” and that they are “being rushed through with little to no public comment.” Regardless, the vote represented an unusual break for Rehberg from conservative members of his party, putting him on the opposite side of his colleagues in the Tea Party Caucus who supported the plan. And at least one of Montana’s larger tea party groups is letting him hear about it.

Eric Olsen, the co-founder of Montana Shrugged in Billings, told the liberal news site Huffington Post that Rehberg is “trying to vote for a political election now, instead of with his heart.”

To be sure, voting for the GOP budget plan, which won’t pass the Democratic-controlled Senate, was largely symbolic. But symbolism can go a long way, except when proposing changes to Medicare. In Ryan’s plan, Medicare under its current form (that is, a government-run health insurance plan) would be phased out in 10 years and replaced with a “premium subsidy” program that would give seniors a fixed amount of money to buy private insurance.

It’s a radical idea, but addressing a $14 trillion-plus deficit calls for a few of those. The problem is people don’t like it, at least those being asked about it by pollsters. A McClatchy-Marist poll found that a whopping 80 percent of registered voters oppose cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. Seniors, especially, are wary of changes to their Medicare plans. And therein lies the problem for Rehberg.

Seventeen percent of Montanans are enrolled in Medicare, slightly above the national average. The state is the seventh oldest in the nation. And elderly residents vote in disproportionately high numbers.

Tester has his own health care problems. He supported President Barack Obama’s reform law, which has failed to resonate with voters and, by many measures, is even more unpopular than when it passed about a year ago.

A Mason-Dixon poll, commissioned by Lee Newspapers and released in March, found that 57 percent of Montanans want to see the reform law repealed and just 34 percent support it. And among Independents, 64 percent support repeal.

But in a vote to defund the health care overhaul earlier this month, Tester doubled down in his support of a plan – one that even Montana’s Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer has publicly questioned.

While the deficit and state of the economy will almost certainly be the focal points during the debates leading up to the 2012 election, cutting spending is directly tied to each party’s health care proposals.

Democrats have maintained that their health care reform plan will decrease the deficit by up to $1 trillion. The Congressional Budget Office backs up some of their numbers, but Republicans aren’t buying it.

Meanwhile, Republicans say their overall budget plan would save more than $6 trillion over the next 10 years and reduce the deficit by $4.4 trillion. Critics challenge many of those claims. Nonetheless, a lot those savings would come from changes to Medicare and Medicaid, with a CBO analysis saying the plan would eventually increase health care costs for the poor and elderly.

As Tester and Rehberg hit the campaign trail, they will be questioned on why they, or their parties, want to overhaul a health care system in a way that the majority of Americans oppose. And their respective explanations may be a deciding factor in what is expected to be an exceptionally tight race.