Candidate says group is distorting debate

HELENA - U.S. Senate candidate Brian Schweitzer is demanding that Montana television stations yank pharmaceutical industry ads that falsely peg the Democrat as a supporter of Canadian-style government price controls on medication.

But as is common in these debates over issues, the stations asked Citizens for Better Medicare to validate its claims against the Montana farmer-rancher before they take any action.

"What this really boils down to is a matter of opinion," said Monte Wallace, Montana Television Network group manager, of Billings. "It puts us in the position of trying to be judge and jury, and that's tough. We're looking at it."

Schweitzer came under direct attack this month when Citizens for Better Medicare, which is bankrolled by the drug industry, bought television, radio and newspaper spots arguing the candidate's nationally publicized Canadian drug-buying trips are a hoax.

The group argues the candidate is actually advocating changing America's health care system to include Canadian-style government price controls - a move it claims will make health care less available to Americans. It says the Canadian system is faltering, sending foreigners to the United States to avoid rationing, waiting lists and a lack of new medicines.

Schweitzer insists the spots are a lie and distort his message, which is why he said Montana television stations must pull these falsities. The candidate isn't asking newspapers and radios to jerk the similar ads because the majority of resources are invested in television. But Schweitzer said it's not out of the question.

"They need to know that their brand of politics isn't welcome in Montana," Schweitzer said in a press release.

This political unknown made national headlines this winter by trucking busloads of retirees to Canada and Mexico to buy cheaper medications than what are sold in the United States. One trip to Milk River, Alberta, saved travelers $24,000 on prescription drugs.

Tim Ryan of Washington, D.C., Citizens for Better Medicare executive director, said Schweitzer doesn't want Montanans to know his true intentions. He called the border runs a political shenanigan.

"It's an outrage that he's trying to squelch a full debate and bully television stations to pull our ads," said Ryan, whose group sponsored $30 million in ads featuring an elderly bowler named "Flo" to attack President Clinton's plan to provide drug benefits under Medicare.

Ryan said the group sent Montana stations a letter supporting its claims that Schweitzer is actually supporting a Canadian-style health system.

"Schweitzer's own advertisement states that he 'has a plan to force pharmaceutical companies to sell medicine at the same low price they do in Canada and Mexico,' " the letter states. "Government price controls mean government controls which will affect the quality of health care and prescription drugs."

In an interview, Ryan added: "Canadians pay for price control with their own health. There is a price for price controls."

Schweitzer argues that the group is distorting the debate by changing the focus to Canada's health system - something never mentioned, let alone advocated, he said.

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