Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series on health-care proposals from the candidates running in contested primaries for U.S. Senate and U.S. House.
Most of the five Democrats vying to challenge Montana’s Republican congressman, Greg Gianforte, say health-care reform is a top priority – and one of them wants to overhaul the entire system of coverage.
John Heenan, a Billings lawyer, says he favors “Medicare for all,” which would be government-run and taxpayer-funded health coverage for everyone.
When asked how to pay for it, Heenan says it would save $500 billion a year, by getting rid of layers upon layers of private insurance bureaucracy and payment systems, and replacing it with one system and the same, basic coverage for all Americans.
“The better question is, how can we afford to keep up with the status quo?” he told MTN News in a recent interview. “We have a health-care system that is run for and to benefit pharmaceutical companies and health insurance companies, to the detriment of us, as consumers of health care.”
Other Democrats in the five-way primary also want more publicly run health-insurance options, but say Medicare-for-all is not politically realistic.
“I think the Medicare-for-all solution is pretty pie-in-the-sky, and I think it’s an empty promise that I don’t particularly want to make to Montanans,” says Grant Kier, a former land-trust director from Missoula.
Heenan, Kier, former state Rep. Kathleen Williams of Bozeman and two Bozeman attorneys, Jared Pettinato and John Meyer, are competing for the Democratic nomination to take on Gianforte this fall. The primary election is June 5 and absentee ballots will be mailed out May 11.
Meyer, who runs the Cottonwood Environmental Law Center, is the only Democrat who hasn’t made health-care reform a big part of his campaign.
The others say the high cost of care and coverage and lack of access to both are key issues in the minds of voters.
They generally support the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” but say it hasn’t gone far enough to control costs or help people get affordable coverage and care.
Williams has a plan to fix health care, and its centerpiece is allowing people aged 55-64 to buy into Medicare coverage, which now covers Americans 65 and older with relatively low premiums.
The 55-64 age group could pay much less than it would on the private market, and the plan could actually save Medicare money, by providing reliable coverage and health care to people earlier in life, she told MTN News.
“We think it will create a grassroots demand for moving all of America to a stronger public option and a better all-around health care system,” Williams says. “And we think it will happen faster with this strategy than some of the other bold proposals that aren’t recognizing political realities.”
She also wants Medicare to be able to bargain directly with the pharmaceutical industry on drug costs – something it’s prevented by law to do now.
Kier also supports the drug-bargaining change, wants to encourage more emphasis on preventive care, and says the ACA can be built on by creating a “public option,” or publicly run insurer, that can compete with private insurers in the individual health-coverage market.
“We don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” he says. “I think we need to bring everybody together at the table who’s involved in the industry to make sure we maximize the benefits that we have already in our health-care system, and we start to alleviate some of the problem.”
Pettinato says U.S. drug companies should not be allowed to charge Americans more than they charge consumers for the same drug in other developed countries.
He also wants to encourage more people to buy private insurance as individuals, and believes using a direct, one-time payment would accomplish that goal.
“If we do it right, we could make those payments in November and December when people need that extra cash to help them buy Christmas presents,” Pettinato says. “That will bring people in, it will expand health insurance to more people and decrease premiums.”
Heenan, however, says these approaches merely leave in place a system that benefits those unduly profiting from health care, rather than the consumer.
“There is a lot of opportunity to cut bureaucratic red tape, and pick the best from the government programs (we already have),” he says. “If you want to look at bureaucracy at its finest, look no further than the private health-insurance regime that we have in place right now.”