Friday, August 14, 2009

A Red Letter Day

Today's been quite eventful.

First, a participant in Gallatin County Treatment Court graduated the program after eighteen months clean and sober, responsible, honest, and with integrity. I've written about the Treatment Court and its participants before, and I'm honored that we as a society have a program for people to overcome their addictions, make right what they'd made wrong, and recover from bad events to improve their lives and the lives of their families, friends, employers. It's an awesome thing to watch someone turn his or her life around; not many people do it without some intensive help, and that's what the Treatment Court provides, for a time. The success of the program, and the success of the participants' lives, is theirs to insure. It's humbling and inspiring when each graduate of Treatment Court makes this last day of court supervision and 'sheds the skin' for a new and improved life.

Then, this afternoon, President Barack Obama held a town hall meeting in our very own little piece of the world! Big doings in our little burg!

This town hall meeting, unlike others around the country that have been disruptive and confrontational, was (I like to think) the way Montana does things. It was orderly, and people were respectful. Those who posed questions to President Obama were courteous, and so were his responses. Governor Schweitzer spoke before the president, and said that although we may disagree on things, we aren't disagreeable people.

Other citizens of this great country could take a page from our book on town hall meetings. There was a wide diversity of people at the meeting, inside the hall and out, but it's important to remember that when we discuss issues, when we try to find solutions, when we must try to persuade others about issues, it's much easier to come to solutions when we're not screaming at one another.

The meeting began with our good Senator Jon Tester, Governor Schweitzer, and Senator Baucus speaking, and then a personal story of victory over cancer--and dropped coverage from insurance companies--from a friend of mine, Katie Gibson. In the midst of fighting cancer, Katie also had to fight her insurance company to pay what they'd said they would. Later, Katie was dropped from coverage by a different company after they'd approved her claims. The President shared other stories of people around the nation who've fought health battles, and who've fought their insurance companies to pay.

It's time for a change.

The President's remarks:

Hello, Montana! It's great to be here again. It's always nice to take a break from the back and forth in Washington. And I'm thrilled to have the chance to spend some time with the folks in this beautiful state. After all, here in Montana, you've got bears and moose and elk. Back in Washington, we mostly see a lot of bull. So this is a nice change of pace.

I especially want to thank Katie for her introduction. I appreciate your willingness to talk about such a painful experience, because it's important that we understand what's at stake in this health care debate. These are the kinds of stories I've read in letters and heard in town halls all across America. The stories of hardworking people who are doing the right thing and acting responsibly, only to find out that they're penalized because others aren't doing the right thing - others aren't acting responsibly.

On Tuesday, I was in New Hampshire talking about the people denied insurance coverage because of preexisting conditions. Today, we're talking about folks like Katie who've had their insurance policies suddenly revoked, even though they were paying premiums, because of a medical condition. And tomorrow, in Colorado, we'll be talking about the people who have insurance but are still stuck with huge bills because they've hit a cap on their benefits or they're charged exorbitant out-of-pocket fees.

And when you hear about these experiences, when you think of the millions of people denied coverage because of preexisting conditions, when you think about the thousands who have their policies cancelled each year, like Katie, I want you to remember one thing: there but for the grace of God go I. These are ordinary Americans, no different than anyone else, held hostage by health insurance companies that deny them coverage, or drop their coverage, or charge fees that they can't afford for care that they desperately need.

It's wrong. It's bankrupting families and businesses. And we're going to fix it when we pass health insurance reform this year. And I want to thank Senator Max Baucus for his hard work on a bill as chair of the Finance Committee - and for his commitment to getting this done.

Now, this is obviously a tough time for families in Montana and across America. Just six months ago, we were in the middle of the worst recession of our lifetimes. We were losing about 700,000 jobs each month. Economists of all stripes feared a second coming of the Great Depression. That's why we acted as fast as we could to pass a recovery plan to stop the freefall.

The recovery plan was divided into three parts. One third of the money in the Recovery Act went to tax cuts that have already started showing up in the paychecks of about 400,000 working families in Montana. We also cut taxes for small businesses on the investments that they make, and more than 200 Montana small businesses have qualified for new loans backed by the Recovery Act, including ten businesses in the Bozeman area alone.

Another third of the money in the Recovery Act is for emergency relief for folks who've borne the brunt of this recession. We've extended unemployment benefits for 40,000 Montana residents. We've made health insurance 65 percent cheaper for families who rely on COBRA while they're looking for work. And for states facing historic budget shortfalls, we provided assistance that has saved the jobs of tens of thousands of workers who provide essential services, like teachers and police officers. We've prevented painful jobs cuts - and a lot of painful state and local tax increases.

The last third of the Recovery Act is for investments that are already putting people back to work. These are jobs rebuilding infrastructure; there are nearly seventy transportation projects already approved here in Montana. These are jobs fixing up the roads that run through national forests. These are good jobs doing the work America needs done. And most of the work is being done by local businesses, because that's how we're going to grow this economy again.

So there is no doubt that the recovery plan is doing what we said it would: putting us on the road to recovery. We saw last Friday the jobs picture is beginning to turn. We're starting to see signs that business investment is coming back. But that doesn't mean we're out of the woods. You know that. In Bozeman, for example, the local job center recently reported seeing more than 8,000 job seekers for just 160 jobs. We cannot sit back and do nothing while families are still struggling.

Even before this recession we had an economy that was working pretty well for the wealthiest Americans - working pretty well for Wall Street bankers and big corporations - but it wasn't working so well for everybody else. It was an economy of bubbles and busts. It was an economy in which recklessness, and not responsibility, was rewarded. We cannot go back to that kind of economy.

If we want this country to succeed in the 21st century then we have to lay a new foundation for lasting prosperity. And health insurance reform is one of the key pillars of this new foundation. Because this economy won't work for everyone until folks like Katie and her husband can start that small business without fear of losing their health coverage; until companies aren't slashing payroll and losing profits to pay for health insurance; until every single American has the security - the peace of mind - of knowing that they've got quality, affordable health care.

The fact is, health care touches all of our lives in a profound way. So it is only natural that this debate is an emotional one. And I know there's been a lot of attention paid to some of the town hall meetings that are going on around the country - especially those where tempers have flared. You know how TV loves a ruckus.

But what you haven't seen - and what makes me proud - are the many constructive meetings going on all over the country. Earlier this week, I held a town hall in New Hampshire. A few thousand people showed up. Some were big supporters of health insurance reform. Some had concerns and questions. And some were downright skeptical. But I was glad to see that people weren't there to shout. They were there to listen. And I think that reflects the American people far more than what we've seen covered on television these past few days. And I thank you for coming here today in that spirit. But before I take your questions, I want to talk about what health insurance reform will mean for you.

First, health insurance reform will mean a set of common-sense consumer protections for folks with health insurance.

Insurance companies will no longer be able to cancel your coverage because you get sick. This is what happened to Katie. Think about this. You do the responsible thing. You pay your premiums each month so that you are covered in case of a crisis. And then that crisis comes. You have a heart attack. Or your husband finds out he has cancer. Or your son or daughter is rushed to the hospital. And at your most vulnerable - at your most frightened - you get a phone call from your insurance company. Your coverage is revoked. It turns out, once you got sick, they scoured your records looking for a reason to cancel your policy, and they found a minor mistake on an insurance form you submitted years ago.

One report found that three insurance companies alone had cancelled 20,000 policies in this way over the past few years. One man from Illinois lost his coverage in the middle of chemotherapy because his insurer discovered he hadn't reported gall stones he didn't know about. Because his treatment was delayed, he died. A woman from Texas was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer and was scheduled for a double mastectomy. Three days before the surgery, the insurer canceled the policy. Why? In part because she forgot to declare a case of acne. By the time she had her insurance reinstated, the cancer had more than doubled in size.

This is personal for me. I will never forget my own mother, as she fought cancer in her final months, having to worry about whether her insurance company would refuse to pay for her treatment. The insurance company was arguing that she should have known that she had cancer when she took a new job - even though it hadn't been diagnosed yet. If it could happen to her, it could happen to any one of us. It's wrong. And when we pass health insurance reform, we're going to put a stop to it once and for all.

Insurance companies will also be prohibited from denying coverage because of your medical history. A recent report found that in the past three years, more than 12 million Americans were discriminated against by insurance companies because of a preexisting condition. No one holds these companies accountable for these practices. But we will.

And insurance companies will no longer be able to place an arbitrary cap on the amount of coverage you can receive in a given year or a lifetime. That will help 3,700 households in Montana. We will place a limit on how much you can be charged for out-of-pocket expenses, too, because no one in America should go broke because they get sick. And finally we will require insurance companies to cover routine checkups and preventive care, like mammograms and colonoscopies. That saves money and that saves lives.

This is what health insurance reform is all about. Right now we have a health care system that too often works better for the insurance industry than it does for the American people. And we're going to change that.

Now, if you're one of the nearly 46 million people who don't have health insurance, you will finally have quality, affordable options. If you do have health insurance, we will help make that insurance more affordable and more secure. If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health plan. If you like your doctor, you can keep seeing your doctor. This is important: I don't want government bureaucrats meddling in your health care - but I also don't want insurance company bureaucrats meddling in your health care either.

Under reform, more than 100,000 middle-class Montanans will get a health care tax credit. More than 200,000 Montanans will have access to a new marketplace where you can easily compare health insurance options. And nearly 30,000 small businesses in Montana will be helped by new tax benefits as well. And we do all of this without adding to our deficit over the next decade, largely but cutting waste and ending sweetheart deals for insurance companies that don't make anybody any healthier.

The fact is, we are closer to achieving health insurance reform than we have ever been in history. We have the American Nurses Association and the American Medical Association on board - because America's doctors and nurses know how badly we need reform. We have broad agreement in Congress on about 80 percent of what we're trying to achieve. And we have an agreement from the drug companies to make prescription drugs more affordable for seniors. The AARP supports this policy, and agrees with us that reform must happen this year.

Because we are getting close, the fight is getting fierce. The history is clear: every time we are in sight of health insurance reform, the special interests fight back with everything they've got. They use their influence. They run their ads. They use their political allies to scare the American people.

Well, we cannot let them do it again. Not this time. Because for all the scare tactics out there, what is truly scary - what is truly risky - is if we do nothing. If we keep the system the way it is right now. We will continue to see 14,000 Americans lose their health insurance every day. Premiums will continue to skyrocket, rising three times faster than wages. The deficit will continue to grow. Medicare will go into the red in less than a decade. And insurance companies will continue to profit by discriminating against people simply for being sick.

So if you want a different future - a brighter future - I need your help. Change is never easy - and it never starts in Washington. It starts with you. I need you to knock on doors, talk to your neighbors, and spread the facts. The cynics will continue to exploit fear for political gain. But we know that this isn't about politics. This is about families and businesses. And at this moment - at this time defined by so many challenges - this about whether we will look back years from now and say we did what was right. We did what was hard. We did what was necessary to leave for our children a country stronger than the one we found.

Thank you. And now, I'd be happy to take your questions.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

For Montana and NCAA Sports, All's Well that Ends Well

Good news for athletes and sports fans across Montana today: the NCAA today clarified its sports wagering policy and specifically exempts Montana's sports pools. Montana can continue to host NCAA and post-season games. Great news!

In June, I wrote about the NCAA issuing a decision that would have prohibited states that allow sports games in lotteries and sports betting from hosting NCAA playoff games. After I spoke with the Attorney General's office and officials in the university system familiar with the policy, I felt sure that the NCAA would determine that the fears of influencing games could not happen in Montana; we don't have live sports betting, but lottery games with sports themes. It took two months and a meeting of chancellors and presidents Thursday in Indianapolis, but the NCAA has found that all's well with NCAA sports and post-season game-hosting in Montana.

The whole issue arose when NCAA officials threatened to ban all playoff games in Delaware as that state considered legalizing wagering on the outcome of sporting events. That policy then crept to states that have gaming, and sports-themed games, like Montana, even though we do not have legalized wagering on the outcome of live sporting events, like Delaware. Montana law allows betting on fantasy sports leagues, not on the outcome of single events, prohibited under NCAA rules.

The new NCAA policy states: "No predetermined or non-predetermined session of an NCAA championship may be conducted in a state with legal wagering that is based upon single-game betting (high school, college or professional) in a sport in which the NCAA conducts a championship."

Sports are important in Montana, and we play by the rules--of the game and of the sporting associations. I'm glad the issue is resolved and Montana can continue its participation and enjoyment of the games.

Go, Cats. :)