Deciding what, if anything, Congress can do about America's health care system will be a major issue for Montana's next congressman.
Attempts to reform health maintenance organizations (HMOs), controlling home health care costs and restructuring Medicare are all on the schedule for Congress' next session, according to Sen. Conrad Burns' press secretary Ben O'Connell. Sen. Max Baucus' legislative aide Brian Cavey added that access to universal health insurance and a patient's bill of rights are other initiatives that will probably make headlines.
In a Missoulian voter poll taken in August, health care was a top-three issue in Flathead, Ravalli and Lake counties, especially among female voters.
First-term Republican Congressman Rick Hill and Democratic challenger Robert "Dusty" Deschamps showed a wide split of opinion on health care issues.
"We ought to rely on the marketplace to regulate health care," Hill said in a September interview. "We have universal access to health care now, but it's not always affordable or doesn't cover pre-existing conditions." The market should be allowed to offer a wide range of health care options based on people's needs and circumstances. Government regulation has generally produced higher premiums for customers, making it harder for people to afford insurance, he said.
"There's a need for health care and health insurance for every American," Deschamps said, adding he would support some form of universal coverage. He proposed making health insurance tax-deductible for self-employed people and small businesses. He also supported lowering the age at which citizens qualify for Medicare coverage.
Hill said he "absolutely opposed" lowering the age limit on Medicare, saying the system couldn't afford such an increase of clients. He favored reducing access to tobacco for minors, but added that many states have laws to do that but ignore them. He would limit advertising (especially point-of-sale marketing) and strengthen penalties for children caught possessing tobacco. But any new taxes on tobacco ought to go to Medicare and other tobacco-related health programs, not new government spending, he said.
Both candidates favored regulatory reform of HMOs, saying medical experts should have priority over money managers in deciding what kinds of treatment patients should receive.