April 2, 2011 in City

Two health care bills vetoed

Governor suggests amendments to GOP legislation undermining new law
Matt Gouras Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer speaks in front of a crowd outside the Capitol in Helena on Friday. Schweitzer vetoed two bills targeting the federal health care reform law.
(Full-size photo)

HELENA – Gov. Brian Schweitzer agrees with Republicans that the looming federal mandate for individuals to buy health insurance is “onerous” and should be banned in Montana – but with one big exception. He thinks people should instead have the option to buy some form of cheap government-run insurance.

Schweitzer issued vetoes Friday suggesting amendments for two bills important to Republicans intent on undermining the federal health care law. In one case, Republicans say they may take his proposed deal.

The governor, a Democrat, has also been a critic of the federal health care law – but often for far different reasons than the Republican critics.

Schweitzer argues the health care law, much of it drafted by fellow Montana Democrat U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, gives far too much to the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries. Schweitzer has said a much simpler system that provides people an option to buy into a cheaper government health insurance program, like Medicare, would be better.

Republicans at the Legislature have made it a priority to make sure state government doesn’t implement provisions of the federal health care overhaul.

“My amendments express that the provisions of the federal health care reform act are onerous to individuals and small employers because no low-cost public health insurance option is available to Montana consumers,” Schweitzer said. “Were a low-cost public health plan available as an option to Montanans, we could rest assured that insurance prices would become more competitive and affordable for Montanans.”

His proposed amendments also say the ban on the mandate would terminate if Congress were to ever approve a low-cost public health insurance option.

The Republican sponsor of Senate Bill 125 said it is possible Republicans could take the deal because it would give them the policy they want in regard to banning the individual mandate. Sen. Art Wittich, of Bozeman, said Republicans of course have no interest in a so-called public option.

“The governor wants to go in the exact opposite direction of where we should go,” Wittich said. “He is going for even more federal health care and cost.”

But Wittich said it seems highly unlikely Congress would ever construct a public option, so there may be no harm in putting Schweitzer’s desired caveat into state law.

“The good news is the governor would allow prohibition of the individual mandate,” Wittich said.

Schweitzer said in an interview Friday afternoon that giving people an option to buy into Medicare would not only be cheaper for them than private insurance, but he believes it would also help shore up the federal program.

Schweitzer also rejected Senate Bill 106, which would order the attorney general to join a lawsuit by two dozen other states challenging the law. Schweitzer said he will sign that bill if it only “encourages” the attorney general to join, arguing it is an unconstitutional breach of separation of powers for the Legislature to issue such an order to an elected executive branch official.

The governor added the Legislature would have to agree to cut its budget $400,000 to pay for the lawsuit if the attorney general decides to join. Republican lawmakers, who say the lead states are willing to let Montana in for $1,000, are highly unlikely to agree to the governor’s request.

“I find it particularly ironic that some legislators are willing to spend Montana taxpayers’ money to challenge the federal health care reform act for symbolic reasons, while at the same time deriving personal advantage from state health care laws and policies that allow them, as legislators, to receive taxpayer-funded health insurance benefits,” Schweitzer wrote in his veto message.

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