Thursday, May 28, 2009

Two Town Hall Meetings in Two Days

On Tuesday following Memorial Day weekend, US Senator Jon Tester held a town hall meeting in Bozeman to discuss resuming passenger rail service in southern and western Montana. The meeting drew more than a hundred people, and included local representatives. Ray Lang of Amtrak spoke, as did Jim Lynch of the Montana Department of Transportation. When Senator Tester opened the floor for comments, I asked if Amtrak (a federally-owned rail corporation) had access to all the track it needed. I asked about on-track railcar storage, which was a hot topic at this legislative session (thousands of railcars are parked on tracks all across Montana). I discussed bills introduced in the session about captive shipping rates for grain haulers, rails-to-trails programs that might compromise passenger rail plans, and truly offering alternative transportation for the majority of Montanans who need to come to population centers for medical care, education, and work. In the session, a bill passed the legislature but was vetoed by the governor to establish a rail development authority. The poll of legislators is happening now to determine whether the governor's veto will be sustained or overridden.

Passenger rail service would be a welcome resumption in southern Montana, into western Montana, and on into Idaho. We could resume the Northern Hiawatha route, and beef up the Empire Builder from Chicago to the West Coast through Montana. I fully support restoring passenger rail service.

Yesterday, there was a town hall meeting--a "listening" session--by the staff of Senator Baucus (not in attendance) on health care reform. Again, the meeting drew an impressive number of people, from all over southern Montana: Livingston, Bozeman, Big Timber, Emigrant, Red Lodge. The topic was about health care and health coverage for all Americans. Many advocated a single-payer system. Others brought up reforming Medicare and offering a Medicare-for-all model. Others advocated a public insurance and private insurance option. A panel of health care providers offered their perspectives, and Lori, the head of Community Health Partners in Livingston, moderated the session. It was an emotional meeting; I raised my hand to speak, but didn't get the chance. Many, many people made the most cogent points of the debate, and I offer this:

I think Senator Baucus would do well to take a page from Montana's book, so to speak. This past session, the Montana Legislature, on behalf of the people of Montana

- fully funded the voter-approved Childrens Health Insurance Program (CHIP), also the Healthy Montana Kids act

- increased the state's Medicaid matching caseload payout. With the economic recession and more Montanans losing jobs--and health coverage, more Montanans will qualify for Medicaid. We anticipated a greater caseload, and funded the state's share.

- increased the eligibility for small businesses to provide health insurance to employees through Insure Montana.

- fought for community mental health centers and funding, and won it.

- provided more funding for critical care hospitals in rural Montana.

- provided more funding for community health centers across Montana.

- passed legislation for prescription dispensing at doctors offices in rural Montana when pharmacies are too far away for patients to travel for medications.

- passed my cancer drug donation legislation, which will make cancer drugs available to those who need them, but cannot afford these very expensive drugs.

I'm proud to do all I can to provide accessibility and health care--not just insurance coverage--to our citizens, my friends and neighbors. I've worked in health care, as a practice manager for an orthopedic surgeon, in a medical records department, and as an emergency medical technician (EMT). Treatment is key. Figuring out payment, then, is the muddying factor, but we (Montanana, and Americans) can figure it out. I hope that all options are considered.

In parting conversation with a gentleman at the health care meeting yesterday, I said, "Just as I was worried about the energy companies crafting our nation's energy policy, I have the same terrible worry over the health insurance companies crafting our nation's health coverage policy." I'll do all I can to make sure we have health care for all, not just health coverage.

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