Baucus Watch

A key senator on health reform holds a listening session

Sen. Max Baucus holds the keys to health reform. He’s chairman of the Senate Finance Committee; any health care legislation must pass through his committee So what he says or doesn’t say is important for those following the twists and turns that bills will take. This is the first of an occasional series of posts that will report on the senator’s health care pronouncements, as reported by the media in his own state and by the national press. We hope both will keep an eye on what he and his committee are up to. And, from time to time, we may offer a few questions to ask. The entire series is archived here.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Montana, spent the month of October traveling around his state listening to what his constituents have to say about health care. Lee Newspapers reports that some doctors say we need more primary care physicians; a kids’ dentist says that poor children in the state are going without dental check-ups; a woman from Helena says she wants to buy healthy foods and get preventive care, but can’t afford them. From the Great Falls Tribune, a reporter tells us that a doc at a community health clinic finds that such clinics are “sort of the finger plug in the dam,” adding that “we need some kind of universal health care program. I don’t care how we get there, but we need it.”

More interesting than what the people of Montana have to say is how Baucus responded. Refusing to tip his hand, Baucus said that it didn’t matter which proposal the candidates support, as he is withholding judgment on competing plans for now. He did say that “nothing should be off the table,” but he won’t support a single-payer system—universal health insurance where all citizens have coverage and get medical care as a matter of right. “We are Americans,” the senator said. “We’re different from Canada, we’re different from the United Kingdom.” No kidding! But how are Americans’ health problems different from those of citizens in other countries? A good opportunity for a follow-up question here next time Baucus pushes that line.

“We have to come up with a uniquely American solution, probably a combination of private and public coverage,” he said. That sounds like the insurance trade association, America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), talking. AHIP has launched the Campaign for an American Solution, which it bills as an effort “to build support for workable health care reform based on core principles supported by the American people: coverage, affordability, quality, value, choice, and portability.” AHIP’s campaign has been conducting a listening tour as well, stopping in places like Detroit, Columbus, and Salt Lake City to hear what the grassroots has to say about health care. According to, insurance interests have been large contributors to Baucus’s election campaigns.

The Lee Newspapers story, which ran in the Missoula, Butte, and Helena papers, did offer a clue to what might really happen next year. Although Baucus said he would work with the next president to fix health care, he said it might take “incremental” steps to reform the system. Next follow-up question: Just which increment does he want to tackle first? The story didn’t say, but noted that Baucus said he was still committed to finding a “durable, overarching…all-encompassing solution where all Americans are participating together.” How’s that for flowery, empty language that would have George Orwell spinning in his grave?

Two constituents did point out that 150,000 people in Montana do not have access to primary care doctors, and that too many young children whose parents are poor have badly infected teeth, because dentists won’t accept payment from Medicaid. Perhaps Montanans would like to know how their senator and his committee would address those problems, which also plague other states. But perhaps that’s fodder for another Baucus Watch.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.