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Governor hopefuls split by party on Schweitzer health clinic plans

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HELENA — Most Republican candidates for governor are opposed to Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer's plan to set up a low-cost health clinic in Helena to serve state employees, while Democratic candidates back the idea.

The seven Republican and two Democratic candidates to be Montana's next governor responded to questions on health-related issues as part of a questionnaire from the Gazette State Bureau.

Schweitzer announced plans in February to set up the clinic before he leaves office in 2013, paying for it with the money from the reserves of the self-insured state employees' insurance fund. Three private companies are competing for a contract to set up and run the health clinic.

The idea met with stiff resistance from all Republicans except for Chouteau County Commissioner Jim O'Hara of Fort Benton, who said he supports the idea and added, "We need to work toward lost-cost health care for all Montanans."

Other Republicans opposed the idea or the way Schweitzer proposed it without taking it to the Legislature.

"Health care choice must remain in the hands of those needing health care, not the government," said former state Transportation Director Jim Lynch, a Republican from Kalispell.

Former state Sen. Ken Miller, R-Laurel, said he opposes creating a low-cost health clinic "for one class of Montana's workforce."

Former Sen. Corey Stapleton, R-Billings, said "The appropriation Gov. Schweitzer has been attempting in his final months hasn't had the scrutiny of the Legislature. Without proper vetting or spending approval, I favor bringing the ideas forward in the January legislative session."

Former Republican U.S. Rep. Rick Hill of Helena said he has found "few state employees who want to shift their health care from an existing provider to a government-run clinic."

He urged the administration to slow down, gather quality data, engage state workers and take it to the Legislature where the stakeholders can come up with meaningful solutions.

Republican Neil Livingstone, a national security consultant from Helena, called the proposal "a non-negotiated benefit for state employees and unneeded." It's also an item that hasn't been budgeted by the Legislature, he said.

Republican Bob Fanning a retired businessman from Pray, also opposed the health clinic idea, saying: "I don't think it's fair to get special benefits at taxpayers' expense."

The money to pay for the clinic is not from the state general fund but from the insurance reserves from the self-insured plan.

On the Democratic side, Attorney General Steve Bullock of Helena said some private companies have used these clinics as a way to lower health care costs for both the employer and employee, while still allowing workers and their families to choose their health care providers.

"I believe that any plan to lower the cost of health care, including primary and preventative services — without affecting the quality of care — is worth exploring," he said.

Democrat Heather Margolis said she supports a statewide, single-payer health care system to provide access to affordable, high-quality care for all Montanans and people who live here.

"A low-cost health clinic may be a wise approach to a short-term problem of increasing costs of care of the state of Montana's employee health plan," she said. "It is not a solution for all Montanans."

The candidates also were asked about their position on medical marijuana in Montana and whether they support the 2011 law intended to greatly limit its availability.

Parts of the law were stuck down in District Court, and the Montana Supreme Court will hear an appeal of that decision May 30. In addition, opponents of the law obtained enough signatures to put it on the November 2012 ballot as a referendum. Voters will decide whether to retain or reject the law.

Stapleton said that if the voters want medical marijuana again, his position is zero tolerance with minors. Those using it can be charged with being impaired while driving and cardholders "must hold harmless" the state for any future health conditions, he said.

"I think medical marijuana should be available to those that it helps like cancer and glaucoma patients," O'Hara said. "I would favor keeping the 2011 law to restrict its ability."

Hill said medical marijuana got out of control because of irresponsible negligence by the Schweitzer administration and Justice Department under Bullock. That in turn led to "industrial growing operations and massive distribution sites that eventually became subject to federal enforcement actions," he said. "The Legislature was left with little choice but to act."

Lynch said Schweitzer, Bullock and the Legislature all failed Montana residents and "invited federal involvement into a state program."

"Referendums and initiatives need to be implemented reasonably and in a way that those truly in need are benefited, and not offered up as a sacrificial lamb to the federal government," Lynch said.

Miller favors restricting medical marijuana access "to those very few that no other treatments are available, which was the intent of the voters when they passed the original initiative."

Livingstone said that as long as marijuana possession, including sales and production, remains a federal crime, "it makes no sense for Montana to 'legalize' it." He also criticized as "incompetent" the Schweitzer administration's implementation of the medical pot law.

Asked if he favored keeping the 2011 law, Fanning said, "I favor the will of the people as reflected by their Legislature."

As for the Democrats running for governor, Bullock said, "Medical marijuana, authorized by a physician, should be available for those truly demonstrating a medical need. It's the government responsibility to find a way to regulate it so only those in legitimate medical need have access."

Margolis said Montanans should have access to "medically necessary therapies such as medical marijuana" as long as it a medical decision between a patient and a physician, "with the same precautions and regulations as other medical narcotics."

"I am unconvinced that the manner in which medical marijuana is currently regulated is effective, including the 2011 law to restrict its availability," Margolis said.

In addition, the candidates were asked about the 2010 federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, known to critics as "Obamacare."

Republicans for the most part blasted the law and said they hope the U.S. Supreme Court will strike it down as unconstitutional.

The Democratic candidates, meanwhile, neither condemned nor embraced the federal law but said Montana must find ways to improve the health care system.

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