HELENA — Exchanges over health care reform and the future of Medicare provided some spark in an otherwise tepid debate among Montana’s three candidates for the U.S. House Tuesday night — the first public debate among the trio.
Republican Steve Daines and Libertarian Dave Kaiser both said they would repeal the 2010 Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” and said it’s not up to the federal government to solve problems with the health care system.
Democrat Kim Gillan said she would keep the law and that it’s done some good things, like allow young adults to remain on their parents’ policy until age 26 — but that she’d work to improve it.
“I’ll go to work on fixing what we need to fix, and preserve what we like,” she said.
When asked further how to pay for those who have big medical bills and no health insurance, Daines and Kaiser suggested that local charities could take care of the problem.
“There will always be people in the system who can’t pay the bill,” Daines said.
Daines said his health care solutions would include restricting medical liability, to cut costs, and creating more billing “transparency” for health care consumers, so they can choose the least expensive option.
Daines, Gillan and Kaiser are vying for Montana’s sole congressional seat, which is open this year because incumbent Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., is running for the U.S. Senate against Democratic Sen. Jon Tester.
Daines is a former business executive from Bozeman, Gillan is a state senator from Billings and Kaiser is a small-business consultant and operator from Victor.
The debate was at the public broadcasting studio on the University of Montana campus in Missoula, and was broadcast statewide on public TV and radio stations.
The U.S. House race has been largely overshadowed by Montana’s U.S. Senate and gubernatorial race.
A Gazette State Poll this month showed that half of Montanans don’t recognize Gillan’s name and almost 30 percent haven’t heard of Daines. The poll also showed Daines with an 8-point lead over Gillan.
The trio fielded questions from a pair of journalists and a UM student.
Daines and Gillan largely refrained from criticizing each other, yet Kaiser wasn’t shy about saying that the Democrat and Republican are part of the problem in a corrupt political system, and that he’d provide a fresh approach.
An exterminator with a termite infestation doesn’t “talk to the termites,” Kaiser said, “and if you send either one of these two candidates to Washington, it’s like sending the termites to negotiate with the termites.”
Kaiser said he’d ask voters how to vote on congressional bills, and that government should be scaled back considerably: “There is just a tremendous overreach by the federal government.”
On Medicare, the government health insurance program for the elderly and disabled, Gillan took a veiled shot at Daines, saying she is against creating a “voucher program” for Medicare, which has been proposed by House Republican leaders and supported by Daines.
The voucher plan would require people who are younger than 55 now to buy private health insurance when they reach age 65, with help from the government. Medicare currently offers that coverage directly to seniors.
When asked how she would bolster Medicare, which is forecast to go broke in a dozen years unless it’s reformed, Gillan said only that “preventative care” and dealing with “administrative issues” would cut costs.
Daines said the House GOP plan of using vouchers is a “great starting point,” and that its author, GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, is “on the right track to have a meaningful discussion” to strengthen and preserve Medicare.
“We need to get away from the platitudes … and talk about specific alternatives,” Daines said.
On improving the economy, Daines said he wants to revise the complex U.S. tax code, making it “flatter and simpler,” and lower rates for corporations and cut back on burdensome regulations.
Gillan said the country needs to invest in workforce training, education and infrastructure to help businesses and workers succeed and that proposals from Republicans would slash that spending.