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HELENA - Sen. Max Baucus is getting grief from conservative circles over his comments last week that the health reform package passed by Congress is an "income shift" to help balance a "maldistribution of wealth" toward wealthy people.

Baucus, D-Mont., a key architect of the health reform package passed by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama last week and Tuesday, made the comments at a Washington, D.C., news conference after the Senate passed the final bill of the package.

"Wages have not kept up with increased income of the highest-income Americans," Baucus said. "This legislation will have the effect of addressing that maldistribution of income in America, because health care is now a right for all Americans, because health care is now affordable for all Americans."

Fox News first reported on the comment and its story was widely distributed among conservative Web sites and publications, as well as traditional media, both television and print.

Some critics declared that Baucus had gone "off-message" on the health reform bill and given Republicans and conservative activists a rallying point, by revealing that Democrats' true agenda is to create a "European-style, socialist-leaning state."

Montana Republican Party Chairman Will Deschamps said Wednesday that Baucus' statements raise "very serious concerns," because health care shouldn't be a "right" and most Montanans aren't believers in wealth redistribution.

"We disagree vehemently with (Baucus) that health care is a right," Deschamps said. "It should be an opportunity for folks to purchase health care or take care of themselves as they can. ... Nowhere in the Constitution is it established as a right."

Baucus clearly did not mean the health reform bills are meant to redistribute income from one class of citizens to the other, or ensure that everyone has equal income, a spokesman for the senator said this week.

"Max's statement was about making sure there is a level playing field, so that every American can have access to quality, affordable coverage," said Ty Matsdorf.

Before commenting about an "income shift" last Thursday, Baucus referred to the "millions of dollars in tax cuts for American families and businesses" in the bill that will help them afford health insurance and care.

"It will lower skyrocketing health care costs that are crippling the budgets of American families," he said. "This is also an income shift. It's a shift, it's a leveling to help lower-income and middle-income Americans."

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or at mike.dennison@lee.net.

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