Tim Sheehy, a lead contender for the Republican Senate nomination in Montana, said earlier this year that he wants to privatize the U.S. healthcare system, according to audio obtained by Semafor.
The comments, made at an August meet-and-greet in Glasgow, Mont., were captured on an audio recording obtained by Semafor. Speaking to a group of attendees, Sheehy argued that the Affordable Care Act’s subsidies for insurance coverage and other federal health programs had inflated the cost of medical treatment.
“Our hospitals have been built around federal healthcare subsidies. In my opinion we need to return healthcare to pure privatization,” he said.
He then drew a comparison to the federal student loan system. “Colleges know they can charge whatever they want to charge because student loans are going to pay,” he said. “It’s similar in healthcare, where we’ve got a subsidy system that’s got perverse incentives.”
Sheehy did not explicitly specify whether he would favor privatizing Medicare or Medicaid. However, when asked by an attendee at the event if he would “put all healthcare into the hands of insurance companies” or include “some kind of a subsidy,” Sheehy responded by broadly criticizing the concept of health insurance.
“I mean, healthcare worked before health insurance existed. Each town had a doctor that would drive to your house, take care of you and you’d pay him,” Sheehy said. “And guess what? It worked. It worked when you actually paid a doctor for services provided. And then we started getting into this HMO, insurance, mega-conglomerate structure.”
The comments go further than Sheehy’s past public comments on healthcare. On his website, he blames Obamacare for higher premiums and adds that more government control, “health care has only made things worse“ but stops short of calling for a repeal.
In a email to Semafor, a spokesman for Sheehy said it was “clear that Tim was attacking insurance companies and acknowledging our health care system is broken.” They added that Sheehy believes there needs to be “greater transparency, competition, and shopping for services in our health care system,” as well as protections for patients with pre-existing conditions.
Asked if Sheehy supported Medicare privatization, they said: “Tim knows we must keep our commitment to every Montana senior to protect their Social Security and Medicare benefits. He believes our nation made a promise to our seniors and we must keep that promise. Full stop.”
Sheehy, an aerospace company CEO and Navy veteran, is the top pick of GOP leaders in Washington to take on Montana’s Democratic senator, Jon Tester, in one of the key races that could determine control of the upper chamber in 2024. He is expected to face a challenge in the GOP primary from Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., but recent polls have shown Sheehy leading in their matchup. Last week, Cook Political shifted its analysis of the general election from “lean Democrat” to “toss up.”
Sheehy’s talk of privatizing the healthcare system is the kind of rhetoric Republicans in D.C. have desperately been trying to disassociate themselves from in recent years.
The party has largely avoided the topic of healthcare in general since their failed attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act in 2017, a politically disastrous effort that led to months of party infighting and eventually helped cost them the House. But they have been sucked back into the issue since last month thanks to Donald Trump, who has repeatedly promised that he will try to repeal and replace Obamacare again if elected for a second term.
In response, GOP lawmakers have largely played down the possibility of a new push for repeal.
“Boy, I haven’t thought about that one in a while,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D. said, in one characteristic response. “I just don’t know what [Trump’s] thinking or how we would go about doing that.”
A day ahead of Trump’s recent visit to Iowa, the state’s long-serving Republican senator Chuck Grassley also seemed to swat away the idea of junking the law.
“Getting down the cost of health care generally — that’s all I hear about,” Grassley told a local radio station.
Republican voters have yet to fall in love with Obamacare, but polling shows the policy has become more popular among both parties over the years. As of May 2023, about 6 in 10 Americans had a favorable view of the healthcare law, according to KFF’s tracking survey.
Room for Disagreement
Not all top Republicans are hostile to the idea of trying to repeal Obamacare again. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas told Semafor recently he thought the law was “a fraud committed on the American people,” and that he was “interested” in Trump’s ideas for replacing it.