Montana’s Republican Sen. Steve Daines brought an amendment to the Senate floor Wednesday calling for a single-payer health care system, even though it’s something he strongly opposes.
Daines’ move came after a day in which the Senate voted down a partial repeal of the Affordable Care Act and on the heels of a failed attempt to pass the body’s own Better Care Reconciliation Act.
A vote on the amendment was moved to Thursday.
Daines voted for the full and partial repeals, while Montana’s Democratic Sen. Jon Tester voted against both. Daines has long called for and campaigned on doing away with the Affordable Care Act, saying it has made health care too expensive. Tester supports improvements to the law, sometimes called Obamacare, saying its repeal and subsequent rollback of Medicaid expansion and cuts to the Medicaid program would devastate rural Montana.
Republicans voted many times to repeal the Affordable Care Act when former president Barack Obama, a Democrat who would veto any repeal effort, was in office. The party is now being criticized for not voting to do the same when Republican Donald Trump is in the White House.
Pundits have equated Daines' move as a rebuttal to that, making Democrats weigh in on a policy favored by the more liberal wing of their party.
"I do not support a single-payer system, but I believe Montanans deserve to see us debate different ideas, which is why I am bringing forward this amendment," Daines said Wednesday night. "It's time for every senator to go on the record on whether or not they support a single-payer system."
Daines said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, of New York, said once the amendment was put on the floor Democrats would no longer debate.
The bill is familiar to lawmakers because it is the same legislation brought years ago by Democrat Rep. John Conyers, of Michigan.
It's been around since 2003 and would provide universal access by extending Medicare coverage to all Americans. Money to pay for it would come from a combination of taxes including a payroll tax on employers and employees and more taxes on the wealthy.
Daines announced plans on the Senate floor for another amendment that would reimburse people who paid a penalty for not having health insurance, as mandated under the Affordable Care Act.
“This individual mandate, this poverty tax is immoral. It’s unfair. It’s a tax on freedom. And it needs to be repealed immediately. And those poverty taxes must be paid back to the poor people who paid them,” he said on the Senate floor.
Critics have said that Medicaid expansion, which Montana started in 2016 and has covered nearly 80,000, significantly lowered the number of people who had to pay the fine by extending coverage to the working poor.
Tester voted Wednesday for an amendment that would have required any health care proposal to receive a Senate committee hearing and be stripped of provisions that cut Medicaid or shift Medicaid costs to state taxpayers, before returning to the Senate floor for a final vote. That failed 48-52.
All of the Senate and House versions of the Republican Party’s plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act would end Medicaid expansion and greatly reduce the amount of money states get from the federal government to help cover people under the program.
More than 216,000 Montanans are covered under Medicaid, including children, people with disabilities and pregnant women.
Rural hospitals have said Medicaid expansion reduced the number of patients they treated without getting payment and the state’s health department says expansion saves Montana money. However, even if Congress does not reduce funding so drastically the program would end, in Montana it could expire in 2019 unless lawmakers choose to extend it.
“Today we had a chance to improve health care for Montana families and protect taxpayers, but it fell victim to partisan politics,” Tester said. “Rather than protect health care for children, seniors, veterans, disabled Montanans, hardworking families, and rural communities, 52 senators today turned their backs on Montana and rural America in favor of proposals that will jack up health care costs and take money out of Montanans’ pockets.”
He also introduced his own amendment during the health care debate to prevent any actions that would reduce access to health care in rural communities our force rural hospitals to close. That has yet to be voted on.
A spokesman for the Montana Democratic Party called Daines' move a political stunt.
“Instead of holding in person town halls or contributing in any significant way other than being a guaranteed yes vote on legislation that will increase costs for Montanans, D.C. Daines' only contribution to the health care discussion is a shameful proposal that plays politics with Montanans' health care and has no chance of passing.”
Tester's seat is up for re-election in a year and a half and his race is expected to gain national attention. Daines' seat is not up again until 2020.