By Phil Drake | Montana Watchdog
HELENA — Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer is known for circumventing the Legislature to get what he wants.
He wanted a state employee health clinic here, and he got it — arguing that he didn’t need to go through the Legislature, because the Montana Health Center was an administrative act under the state’s health plan.
State Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, wants to stop the governor from using loopholes to avoid lawmakers.
The State Administration and Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Tuesday approved his draft bill that would make spending subject to legislative approval, including “expenditures and alternatives for providing state employee group benefits.”
“The health clinic may or may not be a great idea, but it should have had legislative review,” Lewis said.
The bill’s critics say requiring legislative approval on spending could stall proposals in bureaucracy.
Lewis is expected to introduce the committee bill in the upcoming legislative session beginning in January.
House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, said in a telephone interview Wednesday that the SAVA Committee made a good move.
“What the governor did with the clinic is to circumvent the intent of the law and set it up on his own,” he said. “That is not what should have happened. He is trying to leave his legacy and we just don’t know what to expect from him.”
Milburn said the decision to open the clinic also should have involved state employees and the public.
Sheri Scurr, legislative research analyst, warned the panel Tuesday that the bill could allow lawmakers to be as detailed as they wanted it to be, delving into such social issues as contraception. Or the Legislature could choose to pass the bill without specifics.
“You can get way down in the weeds,” she said.
Russ Hill, the state Department of Administration’s Health Care and Benefits Division administrator, which oversees the clinic, said he feared the bill could make the department miss deadlines and impact efficiency. Lawmakers then withdrew some of the language in the bill that dealt with deadlines.
State Rep. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula, mentioned Hill’s objections prior to voting against the bill, saying it takes away flexibility to “make smart health-care decisions” and promotes micromanaging by the Legislature.
“Doctors are good at being doctors, legislators aren’t,” he said.
When asked about the SAVA Committee considering Lewis’ bill, Schweitzer said on an Aug. 30 tour of the clinic that lawmakers seeking control would have to answer to residents for running up the cost of state government.
Schweitzer, in the final months of his second and last term, said the clinic program, when running statewide, could save the state $100 million in five years.
Sheryl Olson, DOA deputy director, said the final invoices are not in yet, but the clinic’s startup costs so far are about $40,000. She said the initial and ongoing funding of the health center is from the state’s benefit plan.
A May 4 financial analysis found that the facility could save as much a $12.3 million over a three-year period and $20 million over five years. The report also projects that once a statewide system is set up and has full participation by 12,000 state employees and the university system, the savings could be $100 million in five years. They said those savings are based on cost efficiencies and improving health of members.
The state reportedly will own the equipment in the clinic and pay a per-patient fee.
Contact Phil Drake at [email protected] or (406) 442-4561.