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Campaign in Montana Seeks to Establish Healthcare as a Human Right

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We broadcast from Montana, where a vibrant movement is seeking to recognize healthcare as a universal human right. Last December, the Health Board of Lewis and Clark County, which includes the state capital Helena, adopted a resolution that recognizes the human right to health and healthcare. In February of this year, the Montana State Senate held a hearing on establishing the right to healthcare in the state. We speak with State Senator Christine Kaufmann, director of the Montana Human Rights Network. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: As Congress begins work on reforming the nation’s healthcare system, Democrats are expected to use their majorities in both houses to push through legislation with few concessions to Republicans.

More than seventy House Democrats reportedly told party leaders earlier this week that they won’t support a bill that does not offer Americans the option of a government-sponsored policy. The committee chairmen writing the Senate health bill, Montana Senator Max Baucus and Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, have been criticized by progressive groups for bowing to pressure from the health insurance industry lobbyists.

At an event earlier this year, Max Baucus, the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, plainly said single payer is off the table when asked whether it was an option.

    UNIDENTIFIED: I know that in the Helena Independent Record, you were quoted as saying that single-payer healthcare is off the table. I’d like to know your reasons for putting single-payer healthcare off the table and intending instead to a mandatory insurance payment — or, I’m sorry, purchase by Americans, which is an inefficient way of guaranteeing healthcare to everyone.

    SEN. MAX BAUCUS: Well, I just have to make a judgment. And I think at this time in this country, single payer is not going to get even to first base in the Congress. I just — and we’re also — we’re a big — we’re a big country. It’s — you know, we’re a battleship. We’re an ocean liner. We’re not a PT boat. We’re not a speedboat. It takes time to turn those big, big ships. You just can’t just turn them overnight. And we are — United States of America, we’re a different country. We’re constituted differently than European countries, than Canada and other countries. We’re a younger country, where there’s more of an entrepreneurial sense in America than in those other countries. It’s kind of “go west, young man” in, you know, America and so forth.

    So we’ve got to come up with our uniquely American result. An uniquely American result will be a combination of public and private insurance, but one in which everyone is covered. And just my judgment — and every member of Congress agrees with me, I think, at least those I’ve spoken with, that this is not the time to push for single payer. It may come down — it may come later. But it’s not going to happen in America, in my view. So I’m not going to waste my time pushing on something that isn’t going to happen.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Montana Democratic Senator Max Baucus, seen as one of the most important figure on Capitol Hill around the issue of healthcare right now.

Now, here in Montana is a vibrant movement that isn’t quite as willing to take single-payer healthcare off the table and seeks to recognize healthcare as a universal human right. Last December, the Health Board of Lewis and Clark County, which includes the state capital Helena, adopted a resolution that recognizes the human right to health and healthcare. In February of this year, the Montana State Senate held a hearing on establishing the right to healthcare in the state.

State Senator Christine Kaufmann introduced the bill to make healthcare a constitutional right in Montana. While the bill did not progress, it’s part of a broader campaign for the right to healthcare that will continue this year.

State Senator Christine Kaufmann, also the longtime director of the Montana Human Rights Network, joins us here in Bozeman to talk about healthcare and to give us an overall picture of what’s happening in Montana.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!

SEN. CHRISTINE KAUFMANN: Thank you very much. It’s great to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. So, you just heard Senator Baucus. Your response?

SEN. CHRISTINE KAUFMANN: Well, Senator Baucus’s plan, like so many that are gaining traction across the nation, is based on a market-based solution. And I think, you know, this public-private partnership, we need to kind of get past that, and we need to have a — conversations that’s rooted in values and in a human right to healthcare. I think part of the reason that single payer doesn’t gain any traction is because it’s not valued, it’s not placed in the right kind of context, which is that human — that healthcare really is a human right.

AMY GOODMAN: What does it mean to say healthcare is a human right?

SEN. CHRISTINE KAUFMANN: Well, I think we have to first start by saying this needs to be a part of our founding documents, in our constitutions, and to be able to say that we, as citizens, can count on our government to be able to enforce that right. We need to count on them as, you know, an enforcer of a human right, and that it’s something that’s just part of what we get as citizens in this country.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Senator Kaufmann, I’d like to ask you, what about the Max Baucus argument that it’s time to move for what’s practical, not what we would like, and that it’s a waste of time to continue to pursue single payer?

SEN. CHRISTINE KAUFMANN: Well, I think — I mean, Senator Baucus is really against us, as I said, focused on this market-based solution. And we need to step beyond that. He’s worried about what’s politically practical and what — and popular in this country. And if we — and he thinks it’s not. But I think he’s wrong on that count. There’s been a number of surveys and so on that shows that not only Americans, but also Montanans, believe that healthcare is a right, and it’s something that we should all have, simply as a basis of being human.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the continuing battle in Congress right now with some Democrats saying that whatever health bill comes up, they do want to have some sort of government-sponsored aspect to health insurance?

SEN. CHRISTINE KAUFMANN: Well, you know, the plan, of course, gains popularity among the industry, because his plan creates a mandate for all of us to purchase insurance. And when we — that, of course, guarantees that we are going to be consumers of this commodity. And we talk about healthcare as a commodity, something some of us can buy and others of us unfortunately can’t afford. And, you know, we just need to get past all of that. Healthcare, again, is a right; it’s not a commodity.

And a guaranteed coverage, which is — it’s not even guaranteed coverage. It’s saying individuals must purchase this commodity. And even coverage is not the same as care. I mean, we all know that you have to have a doctor that’s within your — you know, within the network, and you have to have the right kind of problem, health problem, in order to get covered. And so, I think we’re just — Max is just barking down the wrong tree here, and we need to — we in Montana need a human rights movement to put this in front of him, and hopefully that can spread across the nation.

AMY GOODMAN: Why do you think he is holding onto — why — I mean, basically, he’s not saying he dislikes single payer. He’s just saying it’s unreasonable, it’s not achievable, and so he’s not going to go down that path. What are the influences on him here? What is Max Baucus’s record?

SEN. CHRISTINE KAUFMANN: Well, I mean, he sees out there the sort of political consensus around a market-based solution, and we need to really fundamentally shift that. And I think, you know, we need — if we’re going to set this whole debate into a different context, we need a movement that is rooted in people’s values. People aren’t going to necessarily just get behind a technical solution, such as single payer, because it doesn’t really move people. And I think single payer is the logical human rights argument here or the logical solution that we’re going to end up with, I believe. But we’re not going to get there by just focusing on the specific program. We need to set this in a broader context. I think human rights gives us the language. We have a history of human rights struggles in the United States, and I think this is the way we begin to move that. And then, people like Senator Baucus will have a context within which to place that solution, so that a single payer might make more sense to him.

AMY GOODMAN: A very quick picture of what’s happening here in Montana on other issues, State Senator Kaufmann — death penalty. There was just a major vote in the State Senate.

SEN. CHRISTINE KAUFMANN: Yes, the State Senate, Republican-controlled body, did pass abolition of the death penalty a month or so ago. Unfortunately, it did not progress through the House. It died on a very close vote in committee there.

I think it’s beginning to show a shift in Montana, in terms of our politics. You know, we’re a very evenly divided state in terms of the makeup of our legislative bodies. However, we have Democrats elected statewide across the state of Montana. And, of course, this is all rooted in a very progressive history of Montana. You know, we’re not really a right-wing state, despite our reputation, you know, that’s been gained over some of the recent decades. We have a very progressive history. I think we’re back to building upon that. And, you know, the death penalty certainly is one indication of that.

AMY GOODMAN: You are the first openly gay state senator. I wanted to ask you about same-sex marriage. In Vermont, the legislature, for the first time in the country, has just passed, by overriding the Republican governor’s veto, same-sex marriage. What’s happening here in Montana?

SEN. CHRISTINE KAUFMANN: We had a civil unions bill that came before the House, and it actually died on a tie vote in the House chambers — or in committee, I believe. And, you know, for the past dozen years, at least, there have been gay rights measures brought to the legislature, whether they’re anti-discrimination measures or hate crimes protection, that sort of thing. We have had — this is the second time. I brought a civil unions bill once a number of years ago.

Again, they don’t get very far, but they have a good hearing. And I think every time we at the Human Rights Network, you know, try to move that issue, we gain supporters. I think we win a little bit more in the public opinion. And there was recent polling in Montana saying Montanans support not gay marriage, but some kind of relationship recognition for gay couples. And so, again, I think we’re building on that. I’m certainly excited about what’s happened in Iowa and Vermont and other places across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: You are head of the Montana Human Rights Network. It might interest people to know how the Montana legislature works. How can you do that and also be a state senator? And can you talk about issues of — well, we’ve been traveling through Idaho and Montana — the issue of far-right groups, white supremacist groups?

SEN. CHRISTINE KAUFMANN: Well, I guess, you know, in terms of the far-right organizations — I’ve already lost the first part of your question.

AMY GOODMAN: Oh, the question was just how you can be a head of this network and also a state senator.

SEN. CHRISTINE KAUFMANN: Oh, yeah, that’s a good place to start. It’s a very part-time job to be a state senator. It’s not a profession here in Montana. We meet ninety days every two years. I simply need to take a leave of absence from the Human Rights Network to, you know, go to the legislature. And then we have interim committees, you know, during the two-year period of time. But everybody in the Montana legislature has another job, unless they’re retired, of course. And so, it’s very much a citizens’ legislature. People have good access to us because of that. They know us in our regular lives.

And so, I have always believed as a senator that it was just another step in my activist career. Instead of trying to be up there convincing legislators how to vote, I decided I could take a shot at running for office and actually push the red or the green buttons myself. And as a lobbyist, I thought of so many times when I just wanted the person I was working with to say just the right thing. And so, now I’m in a position where if my head is on right, I can say just the right thing. And so, I see it very much as an extension of activism. And so, I take a leave of absence. I go back to the Human Rights Network.

And regarding the other part of your question, you’re right. We have been working — our beginnings really were about the white supremacist movement in Montana. We’re a broad-based human rights organization, and we started by examining — you know, the Aryan Nations organization was active in the northern part of Idaho, lots of spillover into Montana. And so, we tracked that in the — throughout the ’90s with the rise of the Militia movement, which was also very active in Montana, and the Freemen standoff that people may remember back in the late ’90s, I believe. And I think we see a bit of resurfacing of that today, and it’s being fueled somewhat by the fact that we have a black president, unfortunately, but we see, I think, the beginning of the rise of more organized white supremacist activity in Montana.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Montana State Senator Christine Kaufmann, joining us here in Bozeman, Montana.

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