SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Another draft of the Republican health care bill teeters in the U.S. Senate this weekend. Two Republican senators already say they'll likely vote against it. If one more Republican joins them, that bill is DOA. This puts Democrats, especially moderates, in an interesting position. Do they work with Republicans to try to pass a different kind of health care bill, or do they leave the Affordable Care Act as is? We're joined on the line now by Senator Jon Tester, Democrat from Montana.
Senator, thanks so much for being with us.
JON TESTER: It's great to be with you, Scott. Thank you.
SIMON: Does health care need reform or replacement?
TESTER: Well, I think it needs reform. I think that's the most prudent way to go about it. But this bill - I think this is the third gyration of this bill - is another train wreck. And quite frankly, we can do a lot better than this. And I hope that this bill does not get passed in the Senate because it will strip health care away from millions of Americans. It will increase premiums for folks over the age of 50, and it's just not the right direction to go. It goes on and on, by the way. We could spend the next five or 10 minutes talking about all the bad things this does. But it really doesn't meet the needs of this country, and that is to increase access to quality health care and increase affordability. It does neither.
SIMON: In your judgment, Senator, do you do that by compromising with Republicans, who after all hold the House and Senate and control the White House, or rejecting the bill and leaving the Democratic legislation that passed a number of years ago as is?
TESTER: Well, I think what we ought to do is work to fix what's wrong with the current health care system in a bipartisan way. And that means going through committee process, not doing it in a dark room with a select few, but going through the committee process and getting good ideas from everybody. And in solving the problem out there - and the main problem in the current system we have right now is for those folks who don't get any subsidies. They're paying too high a premiums and too high a deductibles. And we've got to figure out a way to fix that and also figure out a way to help lower health care costs overall.
SIMON: There are Democrats who believe that compromise on this issue is not only unprincipled but unnecessary.
TESTER: Well, I think - health care, I mean, it's one sixth of our economy. It affects every one of the people that are listening on your show this morning. It affects everyone in America. This is too important of an issue not to try to help remedy the problems - the things in our current health care system that can be fixed.
SIMON: You became an internet sensation (laughter) - you know, along with singing cats and that sort of thing - this week...
SIMON: ...When - it was a hearing about the Indian Health Service. The acting director of the IHS, Michael Weahkee, appeared. You wanted to know how proposed budget cuts in the Trump budget would affect health care staffing levels.
TESTER: That's correct. And I...
SIMON: We have you on tape.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TESTER: I have never had - in 10 years on this committee, I have never had somebody come up here and when I ask them a direct question, they don't answer it.
SIMON: And Senator Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, agreed with you. What got you all fired up?
TESTER: Well, he was in to explain the budget. And I was asking him very, very basic questions about the budget. And he was obviously told not to answer those questions, and he didn't. And this happens on occasion in committee. And usually, when you inform the person that you're not going to accept their goofy answer - that you really want to get some hard numbers, they usually come around and tell you. And this fellow did not and still did not and to right now, to this hour some three or four days later, still has not explained where that budget is as far as how it's going to affect staffing levels.
Why is this important? Because Indian Health Service is in a very bad way. It's been chronically underfunded for a number of decades, and we need to get that fixed. And if you don't have the head of the Indian Health Service that knows what's in his own budget, there's no way we're going to be able to hold that agency accountable or fix the things that are wrong with that agency. So very, very frustrating and, quite frankly, unacceptable - and this isn't the only time it's happened with this administration. It's happened in other areas, too. But I will tell you that I think and I hope folks on both sides of the aisle in Congress will not tolerate this anymore.
And this budget that was put out by the Trump administration is a train wreck, for rural America in particular. And I will tell you that we need to make sure that the people who are in the leadership positions in these different agencies know exactly what's in this budget so we can hold them accountable as it unfolds.
SIMON: OK. Senator Jon Tester, Democrat from Montana, thanks so much for being with us, sir.
TESTER: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.