Great Falls Tribune: Baucus, Tester tout benefits of Senate bill

WASHINGTON — Montana’s Democratic U.S. senators defended the sweeping health care bill as needed medicine, even as Republicans made one last push to keep it from passing.

“The folks in the Senate have worked very, very hard to get a bill that addresses the health care issues in this country,” Sen. Jon Tester said Tuesday. “Overall, it’s a positive for a state like Montana, where we have so many folks who can’t afford to have insurance. … The system is broken, and it needs to be fixed.”

The bill has several provisions that could help Montana, including increased Medicare funding for hospitals, expanded aid for Indian tribes, more federal health grants to rural areas and special help for the people of Libby, whose exposure to years of asbestos was so severe that the Environmental Protection Agency declared a health emergency.

Using parliamentary procedures and floor speeches, Republicans have been able to slow — but not stop — the health care legislation, which looks certain to pass now that Senate Democrats have the 60 votes necessary to overcome a Republican filibuster. If it’s adopted, senators will begin merging it with the House version before bringing back a compromise bill to both chambers for a final vote as early as January.

Both Senate and House bills would penalize individuals who don’t buy insurance and employers that don’t offer it. They also would bar insurers from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions.

The House version includes a government-run public health insurance plan, while the Senate version calls for the federal agency that handles health insurance plans for federal employees to contract for two national or multi-state plans. Those plans would be run by private firms and offered on an insurance exchange.

The Senate bill, which would spend $871 billion over 10 years, would insure 31 million people who aren’t insured now. It would reduce the federal deficit by $132 billion over 10 years through tax increases, penalties and spending cuts, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

Republicans say the bill is a bad remedy for what ails America because it ultimately would increase taxes, expand the deficit and cut Medicare. They accuse Democrats of using “phony accounting” to make it seem like it would close the deficit. And they’ve taken shots at “sweetheart deals” in the bill, such as the provision to help Libby, saying those items should be removed from the legislation.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who helped lead the health care effort in the Senate and is proud of authoring the Libby provision, accused Republicans of distortion.

Speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday, he called it “a systematic campaign to demonize this bill.”

“With the thinnest connection to fact, they have sought to vilify our work,” he said of Republicans.

The House passed its health care bill on Nov. 7, on a 220-215 vote. That measure would spend $1.1 trillion over 10 years, insuring 36 million people who don’t have insurance now, according to the CBO. The bill would reduce the deficit by $138 billion over 10 years.

Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., who voted against the House bill, isn’t expected to change his mind when a version built upon compromise with the Senate comes up for a vote.

“I don’t think the country wants (a government-run system),” he said last week. “It’s incumbent upon us to do everything we possibly can to keep that from happening.”

At more than 2,000 pages, the Senate bill includes a bevy of provisions, some added at the last minute to entice senators whose support was uncertain. John Thune, R-S.D., and other Republicans have accused the Democratic leadership of buying its way to 60 votes. Democratic leaders defend the measures as important reforms that are needed.

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