Indian Country Today: Tester Op-Ed: Health care reform right for Indian country

In mid-March, I stood on the floor of the Senate and shared some startling news from home.

Hardworking folks and families across Montana were being slammed with health insurance rate hikes of 30 to 80 percent.

When I’m asked why I voted to reform our health insurance system, my answer is easy. It’s because of the families, small businesses and farmers and ranchers in Montana who were going bankrupt under a broken health insurance system.

Indian country is no exception.

I know when things change, folks get nervous. And the debate over health care has brought out all kinds of rumors and misinformation. It’s unacceptable that some folks are spreading rumors about what this bill means for Indian country. So let’s set the record straight.

The reform bill that I supported and the president signed into law is right for Montana and for Indian country.

How does the law improve health care in Indian country?

Most importantly, it permanently reauthorizes the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which expired in 2000. The law will modernize health service delivery in Indian country, improve access to quality care, and fulfill the government’s trust responsibility to provide adequate health care.

Enrollment in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program for American Indians will be streamlined and health care quality and access is strengthened across the board.

And the new law means Montana’s American Indians can choose their own providers, including tribal health providers and the Indian Health Service.

The folks in Indian country face big challenges, especially when it comes to health care. This new law means the government finally lives up to its end of the bargain and helps American Indians reach the goal of quality, affordable care.

I get my best ideas from Montanans. And when it comes to reforming health insurance, the Montanans I heard from wanted to be sure that rural America didn’t get the short end of the stick. That’s why I included language in the bill to make sure rural and frontier communities will get their fair share when it comes to investments in health education and training.

I am one of the few U.S. Senators who has had to go without health insurance. After our daughter was born 30 years ago, Sharla and I had to cut out health insurance to make ends meet. For a few years, we had to rely on hope and prayer.

Sadly, our experience isn’t all that rare in Montana.

For decades now, folks in our state had their coverage dropped when they got sick, or were denied coverage all together because of some pre-existing medical condition.

In some cases, after facing devastating medical bills, Montanans were forced to sell their family farms and ranches. Small businesses couldn’t insure their employees. Medicare was headed for bankruptcy.

And hardworking folks were having to get by on nothing more than hope and prayer, one illness or accident away from losing everything. Not because of anything they did wrong. But because of the runaway cost of health care.

After decades of sliding backwards, we’ve finally changed direction. We’re now moving forward to fix our broken health insurance system.

Now, we start holding insurance companies accountable. We start cutting our deficits. We shore up Medicare. And we give all Montanans access to quality, affordable care.

As we move forward, I’ll keep working hard to make sure this insurance reform is implemented responsibly and effectively. And I’ll keep making sure rural and frontier America has a voice in the debate.

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