Republican governor candidate Al ‘Doc’ Olszewski sees himself as David running against Goliaths.
But he believes his experience as a physician makes him the most qualified to understand and tackle health care for Montanans.
Sixteen years have passed since a Republican has occupied the governor’s office in Helena, a point that was brought up multiple times during Sunday’s Lincoln Reagan Dinner in Havre, where conservative candidates and supporters convened to look ahead to the June 2 primary election.
Olszewski’s opponents, U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte and Attorney General Tim Fox, have more name recognition, the state senator from Kalispell told The Havre Herald.
But he’s working on making up that ground gap.
On Monday, before leaving Havre for Malta, Olszewski and his potential lieutenant governor, Sen. Ken Bogner, parked their campaign bus — with a picture of the duo emblazoned on the entire side — in Havre’s Atrium Mall parking lot and took a rest to discuss their campaign.
Olszewski, an Air Force veteran and orthopedic surgeon, believes winning a political race has a lot to do with being known. He said that’s a major obstacle for him.
Olszewski said a poll from late 2019 showed half of party voters supported Gianforte or Fox, while 9% backed him and 32% were undecided.
His plan is to make himself known and to persuade the undecided — the ones who know the other two, yet haven’t committed to either one — that he’s the best man for the job. Add them to his single-digit group of backers, and therein lies a path, or part of one, to victory. Another approach, Olszewski added, includes taking off some support from the other candidates.
Olszewski also is outmuscled in revenue.
According to the most recent campaign finance report, Olszewski had $50,697.41 to spend in this primary race. Fox had a little more, with $64,161.91. Gianforte, whose fundraising has made state headlines, dwarfs them both with $366,227.19 left to spend in the primary.
Olszewski said he’s not intimidated. His middle name is David, he pointed out, invoking the Biblical underdog who defeated the large and fierce enemy warrior, Goliath.
More importantly, as a medical professional, Olszewski said he’s the best candidate because he has a plan for the issue that Democrats effectively used against Republicans in the previous election: affordable health care.
In the 2018 election, Republicans at the federal level said they had an alternative, but “they couldn’t articulate one,” he said. He has a plan, and “I’ve been working on that plan.”
Olszewski’s health care plan, as summarized on his website, includes:
- Implementing “immediate and innovative” health care regulation reform that reduces the price of health insurance premiums and the cost of medicine.
He said he sponsored bills in the 2019 Legislative session that would have lowered such medical costs.
Olszewski was the sponsor of Senate Bill 71, designed to reduce prescription drug prices by restricting pharmacy benefit managers, the third-party administrators between insurance companies and consumers. The bill passed through the Legislature last spring but ultimately was vetoed by Gov. Steve Bullock, who said the bill would have accomplished the opposite of its intent.
Another part of Olszewski’s plan is:
- Making the state government pay the true cost of the health care it buys through the Medicaid program.
Montana has reimbursed its health care system significantly below cost, according to Olszewski. As a result, the health care system has shifted the unpaid costs to working Montanans. This, Olszewski says, is the No. 1 reason health care in Montana has become unaffordable.
The third aspect of the senator’s plan is to:
- Protect Montanans with pre-existing health conditions and lower the cost of their health care premiums.
Senate Bill 125 created Montana’s reinsurance program to stabilize the individual health insurance market, Olszewski says on his website. The law went into effect October 2019, and the candidate is proud to be part of the health care working group that started the process of creating this bill two years ago.
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Health Care: A Key Election Issue
2020 is a major election year. And once again, health care is among the most discussed issues of the day. Candidates from both sides of the ideological spectrum agree the system needs to be improved. But they don’t agree on the best way to do that.
This election season, the discussion over single-payer insurance, or “Medicare for all,” has been making headlines, thanks especially to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist from Vermont with an army of donors and supporters helping him hold steady at about 25% support from Democrats. Sanders, considered the front-runner in the Democratic primary, dubs health care a right. Everyone should have access to health care, according to Sanders, who thinks it should be administered through the government, as it is in Canada and Scandinavian countries, and elsewhere in the industrialized world.
Back in Montana, Olszewski believes the idea of Medicare for all is a misguided remedy.
“The most expensive health care is free health care, because it’s got to be paid by someone,” he said. “It’s human nature — if you don’t have any skin in the game you want everything. You want it now and you want it gold-plated.”
He cited a “classic example” in support of his point.
Before Medicaid expansion passed in Montana, his Hutterite patients, who normally paid with cash out of pocket, approached their visits with fiscal frugality, he said. For instance, if someone came in complaining of pain, he started by giving them a few options: do-it-yourself exercises, outpatient physical therapy or an MRI scan, the more diagnostically exact but typically more expensive option.
Olszewski said his Hutterite patients usually would try the cheaper routes before considering the MRI scan. In money and business-related dealings, Hutterites were “free market-oriented,” he said. However, after Medicaid expansion, their approach to their health care changed.
“After a year and a half, they would come in, say their back was hurting and ask for an MRI,” he said.
“They didn’t have to pay for it this time. Someone else was paying for it, and it was free to them,” he said.
Olszewski acknowledged that the Hutterites are paying into Medicaid expansion, but said they are paying just the state’s 10% portion, while the government — U.S. taxpayers — are paying the other 90%.
Olszewski said he learned from the Hutterites that they were asked to join the Medicaid expansion program, a statement he used to segue into a bleak portrayal of health care from the perspective of physicians, medical facilities and legislators.
As a doctor, Olszewski said, health care means trying to alleviate patients’ suffering or cure them.
A hospital’s approach to health care is “whatever it takes” to maximize revenue and ensure the facility’s survival, he added.
For politicians, he continued, health care through Medicaid expansion is about getting as much federal money as possible into Montana.
“It’s not even about taking care of the working poor,” he said. “It’s about getting money poured into our state that didn’t come from our state.”
Olszewski cited information from the medical facility he works for to support why government health care, which typically pays providers less than the listed cost of services, is not a viable solution.
About a year ago, Kalispell Regional Medical Center officials went to Helena and spoke to legislators, who learned that 75% of the hospital’s patients were on Medicaid or Medicare, Olszewski said.
Hospital officials, according to Olszewski, told legislators the facility loses $20 million a year on government-sponsored patients — “three-quarters of our business.” The loss must be covered by the remaining 25% of patients with private insurance or those who pay out of pocket. However, the facility not only has to recover the $20 million loss from a quarter of patients, but that same group pays an additional 14%, so the hospital makes a 3.5% profit on all business.
Olszewski questions who government is making health care affordable for “because the only people paying for it are the 25%.”
“In Montana, we just want people to play fair. If you’re down, we want to pick you up,” he said. “But we don’t want you to stay down. Unfortunately, our government keeps people down and entraps them in an entitlement system.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated.
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