The big, blue sky of Montana appeared to go on forever. Dozens of rocky, pointed peaks jutting from scores of densely wooded mountains rimmed Helena, Montana. Just outside of town, I saw a pronghorn antelope with its white, tan, brown and black colored fur grazing comfortably within a stone’s throw from the highway. Mule-deer were bountiful, and a bald-eagle flew overhead like something out of a National Geographic scene. Helena is bordered by the Missouri River, Helena National Forest, Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest and Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, all within an easy drive for the rugged outdoor enthusiast, or the casual observer of some of the best views in all of America.
This majestic beauty greeted our Morning Joe medical journalism team not long after we landed at Helena Regional Airport. The song, Time Waits for No Man written by singer-songwriter Marc Berger, aptly spilled out of the vehicle’s speakers as we drove to meet with trail-runner, father, husband, former Attorney General, present-day Governor and potential future President of the United States of America, Steve Bullock. He had a big day ahead of him with the many responsibilities as Governor, so we were grateful he was able to spend time with us.
In broad-ranging discussions with me, he outlined a practical and realistic approach to improve access to affordable healthcare for Americans. He has been doing that in Montana with the expansion of Medicaid and other healthcare initiatives. As governor, Bullock has not been willing to sit back and wait for others to do his work for him. It is apparent that this same drive is behind his decision to run for the presidency now.
Governor Bullock started by telling me how a year and a half ago, he had been part of a coalition of five Democrat governors and five Republican governor members. From being a member of this bipartisan group, and his work day in and day out as governor, he has seen how the Affordable Care Act works from the perspective of average folks. With the Trump administration’s ongoing attempts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, Governor Bullock is keenly aware what losing that health plan will mean for many people in his state, and across the country. The prospect of millions of people losing the many protections built into the Affordable Care Act is unacceptable to him.
This soft-spoken presidential candidate had quietly slipped into the presidential race without lots of fuss or fanfare. He explained his late-entry due to work that needed his attention as Chairman of the National Governor’s Association (NGA). The NGA was founded in 1908 to serve as the collective voice of the nation’s governors and one of Washington D.C.’s most respected public policy organizations. Its members are the governors of the 55 states, territories and commonwealths. Through the NGA, governors identify priority issues and deal collectively with matters of public policy and governance at the state and national levels.
We first met on the front-porch of the Montana Governor’s Residence where he lives with his wife and three kids. His home is close the public high school he graduated from before heading off to college, law school and going to work as an attorney. By tagging along with him on his morning run I can attest to his physical endurance and overall fitness. We stopped and spoke with him at his favorite running trail, the Deford Trailhead. Barely sweaty after the nearly one-mile run from his home to the trail, he was breathing like he was out for a Sunday stroll. Born April 11, 1966, Governor Bullock is more fit than many only half his age.
His commitment to improving health and healthcare in Montana, and then in the United States if he is elected was abundantly clear. “We still have at least many days before any voters state a preference,” Governor Bullock said. “During my time in Iowa and other places, I hear folks saying, “I’m living paycheck to paycheck.” We need someone that can represent everyone’s needs.”
Governor Bullock spoke of the challenge of maintaining health and fitness through nutritious diet, exercise and sleep while away from home on the campaign trail. “It is more difficult. I try to get a run in every day,” he said. “Running both at home and on the campaign-trail is what keeps me healthy and grounded.” He strives to get in a five-mile run nearly every day. “I should do more, but with a compressed time schedule, I can only get about an hour a day to work out,” he said. “It’s not just to keep me physically fit, it’s almost meditative. For me, it’s so much better for me than being in a class with other folks.”
A calm outward demeanor belies an intensity behind the hectic pace he keeps as a leader and a family man. After a long series of connecting flights to get from the east coast to the capital city of Helena, we were all pleased at how patient and kind Governor Bullock was to our team from Morning Joe. He’s the kind of person that’s a pleasure to be around with a casual style of communication. His warmth was genuine. During my conversations with the governor, I learned how he negotiates so effectively with other members of his state government to advance the cause of health and healthcare in Montana.
Governor Bullock leads Montana as a Democrat, elected to office in a state that had a sixty percent majority popular vote in favor of Donald Trump for president. Even with such a heavily-weighted Republican electorate, he overcame that political hurdle to successfully expand Medicaid in his state. His ability as a Democrat to work with Republican colleagues to achieve such an important public health benefit speaks to his potential as president in our divided country.
Under his direction, Montana initiated a study and found that fifty-seven percent of every business in Montana had one or more employees on Medicaid. “This is about businesses,” he said. He continued, “when we expanded Medicaid in 2015,” we helped thirty thousand people in our state get access to mental health care. We helped ten thousand get treatment for substance use disorder.”
He continues to help those in his state understand that Medicaid is a health safety-net that benefits not just the recipient, but business and communities as well.
We then shifted to mental health. “How do you keep your mind fit,” I asked? “I think that running helps with not just my mental health but also taking a hike with my family, just getting away,” he said. “Just having time away from work, taking time away from the pressures of the daily issues that come up on the campaign trail helps.”
Then we chatted sleep. “Can you tell me about your sleep habits,” I asked? “It is so critical to keep your brain sharp,” he said. “For me it takes a little bit of unwinding. I try to get six or seven hours a night. It is so critical to keep your brain sharp.”
We spoke about the importance of the American public knowing about the health of not just the president, but also the candidates running for the presidency. The governor said, “It’s probably important. Voters are exercising their choice in the hope that someone will stay in office the whole time. You are not necessarily electing the vice president.” He spoke a few times about the rigors of running a presidential campaign with the travel, food, sleep, stress and a myriad of other physical and mental demands. “The balance between physical and mental health may be reflected in the marathon that is a campaign,” Governor Bullock said. He laughed as he said, “It is something no sane person would subject themselves to. The flip side is that both my family and I believe I need to contribute to this country in a meaningful way.”
A young Steve Bullock grew up trout fishing, elk and deer hunting and hiking in Montana. He was a budding conservationist long before he really knew what that meant. He was an outdoorsman long before becoming academically accomplished at Claremont McKenna College and gaining admission to one of the most competitive and respected law schools in the country, Columbia Law School in New York City. Now as a father, he makes the effort to spend time with his family outdoors. “I still fly fish quite a bit when I can,” he said. “And I still deer and elk hunt but admittedly am more successful with the mule deer here in Montana. My son and I will hunt together and we joke that hunting for us is like hiking with a gun, but it’s the best quality time.”
On a family vacation with his wife, two teenage daughters and his twelve-year-old son last year, they spent five nights camping and fishing on the South Fork of the Flathead River. With the enjoyment of being disconnected from cell phone coverage, they enjoyed each-others company. “We were catching twenty-five to thirty fish a day. There were more stars than you can imagine,” he said. “That one week grounded all of us in so many ways. I love that Montana is surrounded by mountains. And while the folks here are often a bit distrustful of the government, they would do anything for a neighbor. The people of Montana are very caring people.”
Governor Bullock made sure that we recognized Montana is not all woods, mountains, streams, hiking, fishing and camping. It also has vibrant cities, small towns and rural homesteads. The people of Montana care, not just about the abundant outdoor life, as the governor said, “also about our communities.”
“We share more in common in this country than we are divided,” he said. “And when you look at what we need to do to make healthcare more accessible, for all the challenges of the Affordable Care Act, we have come a long way.” He believes that if leaders in the United States make the case for improved access to affordable healthcare not just in Washington DC, but out in America where people live their lives, everyone will be better served.
I eventually asked him, “what would you say to the 160 to 180 million American workers that are getting their health insurance through their employer” He passionately explained, “I’d say to each of them that at times you might have some frustration,” he said. “Because your deductibles are too high, your out-of-pocket is too high, but let’s figure out what can make insurance more accessible and more affordable. Let’s improve what we have and let’s not completely tear apart the whole system.”
Diseases of despair, from suicide, depression and anxiety to addiction and unintentional overdose are ripping apart the fabric of American society. Teenage and young adult suicide is increasing in frequency. Montana, and especially the Native American youth in Montana are some of the hardest hit by this physical and mental health crisis. I asked Governor Bullock how as president he could rein in this crisis?
“As Commander in Chief of the National Guard, I’ve had nine of my soldiers die by suicide in the last six years,” he said. “On our Native American Reservations and all-across the state, teen and young adults are dying. You think you are so powerful, or people think you are so powerful as governor. At times I have felt so helpless seeing the epidemic of suicide. But I think there are many things we can do.” He is a proponent of starting programs and initiatives when kids are young.
He went on to say, “we have evidence-based programs targeted to our reservations and our schools,” he said. “We are not waiting now until they are in high school. We are starting when they are in grade school with resiliency programs.”
As a physician still treating patients now for over thirty years, I have seen plenty of Americans harmed by lack of access to quality, safe and affordable healthcare. Under Governor Bullock’s leadership, Montanans are now less likely to denied access to the healthcare. He promotes accessibility and affordability in a healthcare system with challenges known to all of us.
I find Governor Bullock’s experience, intellect, character and temperament to be a good indicator of how he will deal with American healthcare needs of the country should he become President. He is well-positioned to heal the wounds of political and partisan rancor now endemic in the United States of America. Washington, D.C. would learn a lot from Montana!