Tester offers amendment to boost rural health care

The Billings Gazette

by Mike Dennison

HELENA — U.S. Jon Tester on Wednesday proposed amending the Senate’s major health-reform measure to increase certain rural health care programs — and indicated his support for the overall bill.

“I think (the bill) is going to be good for business, for working families, for working farms and agriculture,” Tester told the Gazette State Bureau in a telephone interview. “I think it has a lot of merit.”

Tester, a Democrat, previously had been noncommittal about his support for the health-reform package now on the Senate floor, often saying “the devil’s in the details” and that he wanted to evaluate whether it’s good for Montana, particularly for rural areas and working families.

On Wednesday, however, Tester said he believes the bill will act to extend health coverage to most of those without it, lower health care premiums for many people and slow the growth of health care costs for the country.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt about the fact that the way health care costs are proceeding, that we’ll be in a very, very difficult financial situation if we don’t change that,” he said.

The bill, which hit the Senate floor Monday, would require all Americans to have or buy health insurance by 2014, provide subsidies to help many afford that insurance, expand government health coverage to many, restrict insurers from denying coverage, and scale back spending on Medicare, the government insurance plan for the elderly.

Tester’s amendment, offered Wednesday, would require at least 20 percent of $15 billion worth of public health grants in the bill to be set aside for programs in rural areas.

The money could be used, for example, to develop outreach programs for rural communities to offer screenings for diabetes, or offer other medical or educational efforts to combat chronic disease, he said.

“It’s a solid amendment. It helps bring rural America up to the priority it should be, and it will help rural health care in America,” Tester said.

While the amendment was offered Wednesday, it’s unclear when it might come to a vote.

Debate on the 2,000-page bill opened Monday, and on Wednesday Senate Democratic leaders were sparring with minority Republicans over whether to a vote on the first two amendments offered earlier in the week.

Republicans said they have additional statements and changes they want to make on the amendments, and that there’s no reason to rush things.

Democrats, however, said they’re not going to let Republicans “run this bill into the ground and into next year,” and that they may make some parliamentary moves to speed up the process.

Tester said he has had concerns about the bill during its lengthy drafting process, but that the final package looks like it will address the problems of rising health care costs and extending coverage to those without it.

“As with any piece of legislation, there is nothing perfect out there,” he said. “You’ve got to look at the whole bill. It makes sense. It’s a pretty darn good bill.

“It’s going to be very interesting to see how all this plays out.”