In this year’s electoral battle for Montana state auditor/insurance commissioner, the race is yet another contest where the candidates are sparring over federal health-care reform, or “Obamacare.”
“The vast majority of Montanans are against Obamacare. I am anti-Obamacare,” said Republican Derek Skees, who is challenging Democratic incumbent Monica Lindeen. “Every time she comes out and says she’s for Obamacare, and (she’s) going to implement it, Montanans are going to say, `That’s horrible — who’s running against her?’”
Lindeen, a Democrat elected to the post in 2008, says this year’s race is about more than health insurance — but is happy to talk about what she’s done, or tried to do, regarding the federal health law.
The law invokes many new requirements for health insurance, and Lindeen says she’s tried to ensure that Montana retains its own regulatory authority over insurance, for the good of consumers.
Lindeen asked the 2011 Legislature to authorize the creation of a state-based Internet sales market for health insurance called an exchange, and to give the state authority to review health-insurance rate increases.
If the state doesn’t take those steps, federal health regulators will do them instead.
The Republican-led Legislature, of which Skees is a member, rejected those proposals.
“What I’ve really worked to do is make sure we maintain our state authority as the feds are implementing the Affordable Care Act,” she says. “My opponent, and others like him, said no.”
The federal health-care law has become a flash point in this race — just as it has in many statewide races this year — as Republicans try to capitalize on the unpopularity of the law in Montana.
In an IR State Bureau Poll last month, 53 percent of Montanans said they don’t support the law, while 40 percent did.
Skees, a building consultant and state representative from Whitefish, and Lindeen, a former state legislator who helped found the state’s first major Internet provider, are vying for the oddly named office of state auditor.
The auditor regulates the insurance and investment industries in Montana, and Lindeen prefers to call herself “commissioner of securities and insurance.”
In seeking re-election, Lindeen notes that her office has recovered more than $200 million for Montanans victimized by investment scams and forced insurers to pay $15 million in claims that they initially denied.
She says she’s supported every oil, gas and coal lease before the state Land Board and has pushed to expand a state program providing subsidies and tax credits for small businesses that offer health insurance for employees.
“I’m running on my record as state auditor, and all that I’ve been able to accomplish,” she says.
Lindeen also said if she’s re-elected, she’ll again ask the Legislature to give her office the power to review health-insurance rate increases. If the state has that authority, it can negotiate down increases deemed “unreasonable,” she said.
Skees said he’s the right person for the job because he has no connection to the insurance or securities industry, and therefore can be a strong consumer advocate. He also says he wants to unleash more competition by getting rid of unnecessary regulations and insurance mandates.
But, most of all, Skees said he’ll do everything he can to fight “Obamacare,” and that if it’s not repealed, he’ll drive hard bargains with the feds on implementation and will push for other reforms like selling health insurance across state lines and limiting medical liability.
He said the 2011 Legislature was right to reject the health-insurance exchange, because now the feds are scrambling to set one up in Montana, and will be more willing to bargain with the state on what the exchange looks like in 2014.
“We should negotiate from a position of strength, which is what we did,” he says. “Thirty states are still fighting (the law). … I’ll be a voice nationally to rally folks to fight the federal government.”
Lindeen says Skees “doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” that the feds are already working on the exchange, and that it must meet certain requirements that can’t be compromised away.
“You can’t just slam the door and think that you’ll have a position to bargain from,” she says.