HELENA - Gov. Brian Schweitzer said Wednesday he will ask the U.S. government to let Montana set up its own universal health care program, taking his rhetorical fight over health care to another level.
Like Republicans who object to the federal health care law, the Democratic governor also argues it doesn't do enough to control costs and says his state should have more flexibility than the law allows. But Schweitzer has completely different plans for the Medicare and Medicaid money the federal government gives the state to administer those programs.
The popular second-term Democrat would like to create a state-run system that borrows from the program used in Saskatchewan. He said the Canadian province controls cost by negotiating drug prices and limiting nonemergency procedures such as MRIs.
Schweitzer said the province's demographics and economy are similar to Montana in several ways - yet its residents live longer while spending far less on health care.
A Republican state senator heavily involved in crafting GOP measures aimed at undermining the federal health care law said he will have to see Schweitzer's specific proposal before passing judgment.
"We need state flexibility. Let's get that flexibility and then we can argue whether we will have more role for the government or a larger role for individual," said Sen. Jason Priest, the Republican from Red Lodge. "I don't want to reject it before I see the details. I am just glad he is thinking about it."
Schweitzer told a federal official Wednesday that he will be asking for a waiver allowing the state to abandon the federal programs in favor of one the state will design itself. Schweitzer said details would be coming in the next few months when the request is complete.
The governor said he expects the request will be rejected, like the feds recently did with his proposal to let him sell prescription drugs at Medicaid prices to all Montanans.
"At the least it will create some dialogue, some discussion," Schweitzer said.
It is not the first time Schweitzer has criticized the federal health care law, nor is it the first time he has called for some form of cheap government-run insurance.
During the health care debate in Washington, D.C., two years ago, only the most liberal lawmakers were calling for some form of the doomed proposals for "Medicare for all." But Schweitzer continues to argue that a program like that makes much more sense than the one signed into law by President Barack Obama.
The governor told Marguerite Salazar, a regional director of the Department of Health and Human Services, that Congress has designed a "pack of crap" that gives away far too much to the pharmaceutical industry.
Salazar said she would convey the message to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
Schweitzer said Montanans with private insurance could drop that coverage if they choose and buy into the state-run plan at a cheaper rate. He envisioned a system that would cover, with copays for service, all the uninsured in Montana.
Republican governors have also called getting rid of the federal health care law. They want the feds to send the states a lump sum payment to let them run the Medicaid program how they choose.
Vermont has been crating plans, supported by liberals, to establish a state-run single-payer health care system.