Montana Voices: Why is Daines such a shy flower in health-care debate?

I was complaining to a friend, as is my wont, about Steve Daines, Montana’s media-shy representative in the U.S. Senate.

David Crisp

My complaint this time was that Daines, R-Mont., had been all but invisible in the Senate fight over repealing and replacing Obamacare. His position last week, revealed just as it began to appear that no remaining option had a real chance to pass, was repeal, with replace to follow at some indefinite point in the future.

On Tuesday, he voted with the Republican majority to open debate on health care, then voted for a failed motion to pass the Senate’s version of repeal and replace. At this writing, no one—not Daines, not Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, not President Trump and certainly no one who voted for any of these people—knows what will emerge from the Senate’s secretive, truncated legislative debate.

My friend, more circumspect than I am, suggested that Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., may not have been much better back when Obamacare was being debated and passed. Hmm, I thought, he might be right.

Fortunately, Tester’s Senate website keeps a complete file of his past news releases, along with texts of speeches. It didn’t take long to find out just where Tester stood at the time.

Tester was elected to the Senate in 2006. Barack Obama was sworn in as president in January 2009.

Through much of 2009, Tester was pushing a bill to improve health care for veterans. That bill was signed into law on Oct. 22, 2009.

That same month, the Senate Finance Committee passed a bill with only one Republican vote laying out the framework for what would become Obamacare. Tester immediately issued a press release praising the committee and endorsing its approach.

The Affordable Care Act passed the Senate on Dec. 24, 2009. Three days before it passed, Tester made an impassioned speech on the Senate floor. He cited examples of Montanans who were hit by skyrocketing insurance premiums (yes, children, Obamacare did not invent big rate increases), who were unable to obtain insurance because of preexisting conditions, who had to sell a home or ranch to pay medical bills, or who were driven into bankruptcy by inadequate coverage.

He even cited the example of a Montana trucker who told Tester he didn’t need insurance because he never got sick. But what would happen if the trucker were in an accident? He would just go to the emergency room, no questions asked, the trucker said.

“When everyone is insured, costs will go down,” Tester said. “Because no one will be paying extra to cover the folks who rely on the emergency room for health care they never pay for.”

And Tester cited his own experience during hard times on his ranch, when he could not afford health insurance for his family.

“We had no other choice but to hope and pray for our health and safety,” Tester said. “And for the health and safety of our child.

“Thank God our prayers were answered.”

The House passed the Senate bill on March 21, 2010. Three days before the final vote, Tester took to the Senate floor again, telling senators that Montana school employees were being hit with rate increases of up to 83 percent.

“If Congress does nothing, we know what will happen,” Tester said. “Medicare will go bust. Costs will continue breaking Montana families. No one will hold insurance companies accountable.

“And year after year, hardworking Montanans will continue seeing more of their hard-earned paychecks eaten up by health care costs. I’m not in the do-nothing camp.”

Some of what Tester said doesn’t hold up so well in retrospect, for example, “If you like your plan, you get to keep it.” But he did what politicians are supposed to do: He saw a problem, he took a stand, and he tried to fix it.

He is still trying. Just last week, he sponsored a bill that should earn bipartisan support: He wants tax credits for people who make too much money to get Obamacare subsidies but who can’t afford rates in the Obamacare exchanges. He also has sponsored bills aimed at protecting Medicaid expansion, ensuring women’s access to health services, lowering drug prices and boosting the supply of rural doctors.

Daines? Oh, well.

Daines took to the Senate floor on Jan. 12, 2017, before President Trump was sworn in, to call for repeal and replacement of Obamacare. He cited four examples of Montanans, identified only by first names, who were hit by big rate hikes under Obamacare. There was no mention of preexisting conditions or health-related bankruptcies.

No doubt some Montanans have been badly hurt by rate increases under Obamacare. But in 2014, when Daines was running for the Senate, I was unable to verify the accuracy of an ad claiming that a woman with diabetes in Livingston lost her insurance because of Obamacare. Not only did Daines and the woman fail to respond to my inquiries, but some people said in online comments that they were blocked from Daines’ Facebook page after raising questions about the ad.

Warning: Swallowing Daines’ claims about health care could be dangerous for those on sodium-restricted diets.

In his January speech, Daines offered what had been the usual Republican prescription for fixing health care ever since the Affordable Care Act passed: enhanced health savings accounts, selling insurance across state lines, encouraging more people to work and protecting Medicare. No details about how any of that would actually work made it into the speech, probably because no one has ever figured out a way to make all of that work.

Since then, not much. Daines issued news releases on Feb. 15 affirming support for rural hospitals and congratulating the Trump administration for relaxing restrictions on insurers. He later announced a telephone town hall meeting and put the text of the Senate bill on his webpage.

Nothing about the merits of the House bill. Nothing about the lack of committee hearings or public input on the Senate bill. Nothing about Congressional Budget Office estimates of how many people would lose insurance under the bills, or about how much insurance rates would rise. Nothing about how either bill would truly protect people with preexisting conditions.

Even after Tuesday’s votes, Daines’ comments were limited to bromides about returning health care to the states and about favoring an “open and transparent process.”

Daines remains Montana’s pale lily of the fallow valley. He toils not, but boy does he spin.

David Crisp is a longtime Billings journalist and college professor who writes a weekly column for Last Best News.