HELENA - The country is at a "pivotal moment" for health care reform, as Congress and the president are poised to enact changes to help families afford health coverage and care, the president of a national union supporting the reforms said Thursday.

Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), said his union's members will continue pushing for what they see as key elements in health bills before Congress: reforming health insurance markets, creating a government-run insurance option to compete with private insurers and holding down cost increases.

"We've built our campaign since the beginning of March, to try to be ready for a pivotal moment like this, to try to get health care done this year," he said.

Stern was in Billings Thursday for a health care rally and to congratulate SEIU members on their efforts in promoting reform.

SEIU, which has 2 million members nationwide and about 2,000 in Montana, has had more than a dozen paid organizers in Montana this year, crisscrossing the state to gather stories about health care woes facing individual Montanans and talk to them about potential reforms.

While many labor unions are supporting a single-payer, Medicare-for-all system, wherein the government provides basic health insurance to all citizens, SEIU is behind proposals being pushed by President Barack Obama and many Democratic leaders in Congress.

Those proposals would require all Americans to buy health insurance - if they don't already have it, by 2013 - and impose stricter regulations on health insurers, to prevent them from denying coverage for health reasons.

People with employer-subsidized health insurance can keep it, and patients can continue to choose which physicians they want to see, Stern said.

It's also important to include a government-run insurance plan to compete with private insurers, Stern said.

"America is great because there is competition," he said. "To have another choice for Americans that isn't trying to make a profit (on insurance), but just trying to provide quality care, is a huge opportunity to hold down costs."

Private insurers and health-care industry lobbies are mostly opposed to this "public option" insurance plan, saying it could eventually overwhelm private insurance.

The changes supported by SEIU and Obama also will ensure that everyone pays their fair share of health costs, Stern added, because more people will be insured and there will be less shifting of costs onto those with insurance.

"There is a sense that everyone has to share responsibility," he said.

Stern, based in Washington, D.C., also complimented Montana Sen. Max Baucus for his role in the health-care debate: "He has stepped in with a level of passion and commitment; his voice and his vote are pretty central to this process."

Baucus, D-Mont., chairs the Senate Finance Committee, which is attempting to craft a bipartisan health-reform bill that can pass the Senate.

About half of SEIU's members are employed in medical jobs, such as nursing home aides and home-health aides.

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