Nearly 100 people showed up at the Seeley Lake Community Center Wednesday night to meet the candidates vying to challenge Republican Greg Gianforte for Montana’s lone U.S. House seat.
The six Democrats and one Libertarian chatted with potential voters over pizza before settling in for a rapid fire forum.
The Seeley Lake Community Council’s Klaus von Stutterheim, moderated the event.
"Each candidate will have 30 seconds to answer a question and then we'll end with one minute closing statements," Stutterheim cautioned.
Questions ranged from how candidates would repair divisiveness in Congress, to whether they support term limits, to how to support Montana’s tourism industry in the face of rising costs of forest fires.
Healthcare was where the congressional hopefuls distinguished themselves.
John Heenan, a consumer protection lawyer from Billings, has consistently positioned himself as the only candidate who supports a single-payer, Medicare for all system.
"I support unequivocally Medicare for all," Heenan said. "We have a healthcare system that benefits insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies but it hurts us."
John Meyer, a Bozeman environmental attorney who entered the race just before the filing deadline in March, said rural Montanans don’t want Medicare for all.
"Everyone I've talked to in rural Montana likes the idea of a market," Meyer said. "You get to pick what you want and you pay for what you pick. So, to the extent that we can make a market viable, I think we’ll do well. And I think the way to do that is to make them all non-profit."
Jared Pettinato, a constitutional lawyer from Bozeman, supported lowering drug prices to outcompete other countries’ exports.
"I also want to pay people to get on the exchanges, just a couple hundred bucks to get them involved and do the paperwork just like the bank will give you $50 to sign up," Pettinato said. "That will encourage more people in the system and reduce healthcare costs and premiums for all of us."
Kathleen Williams, a former state legislator from Bozeman, recently released a white paper outlining her multi-step approach to reforming affordable healthcare, which includes stabilizing the individual market, allowing Medicare to bargain for drug prices and permanently funding rural health centers and CHIP.
"And we need to allow people 55 and older to buy into Medicare to create a groundswell of demand for a better public option, and they will," Williams added.
Grant Kier, former director of the Five Valleys Land Trust in Missoula, also wants to expand Medicare. He supports the Center for American Progress’s plan, called Medicare Extra for All, which would open Medicare to everyone while preserving employer-based insurance. It’s considered a step toward a single-payer system.
"To me that is the best plan I have seen that balances the benefits of a public-private partnership that we have in this country on healthcare," Kier said. "It delivers faster and more pragmatically to get universal access, which is what I think we all agree we want."
Libertarian candidate and Billings personal injury attorney Elinor Swanson said more coverage choices will help bring costs down.
"We need, essentially, catastrophic healthcare, just like we do with our cars," Swanson said. "We have legislation that requires all of our health insurance to cover a lot of things we don't need and a lot of people don't want."
Swanson became the first third-party candidate to file for statewide office this February. She says she entered the race to decrease the federal debt.
"I will be saying, 'No, no, no' to anything that says we're investing in infrastructure, we’re investing in technology. That's code for throwing away American taxpayer money without a cost-benefit analysis. I’m not going to do it," she said.
Swanson also wants to see the Bill of Rights expanded to include freedom of conduct.
Democratic candidate Lynda Moss, a former two-term state Senator from Billings, was not able to attend due to a prior engagement. Her special assistant Blair Koch said Moss wants to improve Native American healthcare.
Green Party House candidate Doug Campbell did not attend.
The Republican incumbent Greg Gianforte was invited but did not respond, according to the event organizer.
On Sunday the four Republicans running for their party’s nomination to challenge Democratic Senator Jon Tester will meet in Kalispell for the Flathead County Republicans’ Lincoln Reagan Brunch and candidate forum. That event begins at noon at the Northwest Montana Fairgrounds. Tickets start at $30.
The six Democrats will face off again tonight in Billings at 6:30 at the Babcock Theater hosted by the Yellowstone County Democrats and MSU-Billings Young Democrats.