Tim Bjorkman Says If You Want to Solve Big Problems, Stop "Dialing for Dollars"

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Democratic candidate for U.S. House Tim Bjorkman joins the program with an update on his campaign. We discuss the skyrocketing cost of prescription drugs and how the candidate says money has changed the way democracy works ... and how to turn it around with integrity.  You may listen to the conversation in its entirety here.

Lori Walsh:                            Welcome back to In The Moment. I'm Lori Walsh. Join SDPB for our Republican primary debate featuring the three candidates running for office of U.S. House of Representatives, and this June, voters will decide which candidate represents the Republican Party in the general election. Let SDPB help you become better informed. Watch tonight, 8:00 PM Central, 7:00 Mountain, on SDPB TV. It's also streamed at sdpb.org, and we'll have the radio replay on Friday during In The Moment. Now, the winner of the Republican primary goes on to face Democrat Tim Bjorkman in the general election, and Tim Bjorkman joins us today at the University of Sioux Falls, SDPB studio, with an update on his campaign. Welcome back. Nice to see you again.

Tim Bjorkman:                     Hi, Lori. It's great to be with you.

Lori Walsh:                            A busy season for you in a different way than it is for the Republican candidates, because you're on the road. You're not preparing for a debate. You're on the road listening to voters. What sort of things are you hearing across South Dakota right now?

Tim Bjorkman:                     Yeah, well, we have been to something like 110 different communities across the state, and we're at the beginning of a six-day road trip out West River that will start tomorrow. One of the things that's so rewarding is that people in the communities we go to so often say, "We haven't seen a candidate for federal office in longer than we can remember, so thank you for coming." We just go into their coffee shops, and their restaurants, and their bars sometimes, and just listen. Then we answer their questions. The overriding issue on people's minds that I talked to has to do with healthcare, affordable healthcare. It's people on low incomes, but it's also a lot of small business owners. We go all up and down Main Street in every community we get to, and it's not uncommon to be pulled off to the side for 45 minutes or an hour with a small business owner-not even worrying about their employer's healthcare, or their employees' healthcare, which is a challenge, but their own.

Lori Walsh:                            Their own. Now, as soon as you said the word "healthcare," I've got my own story, and I'm sure people are telling you these individual stories. Mine is with the price. My daughter has asthma. She's on Flovent. I have paid $25 for this inhaler. I've paid $250 for the same inhaler depending on, I don't know, which way the wind blows. Now my insurance company tells me she can't have it at all. She has to get a different medicine, and it's going to be more expensive. You hear all these individual, complicated stories, and people are frustrated. Can it be fixed?

Tim Bjorkman:                     Yeah, well, I'm convinced it can be, or I wouldn't have left the bench to work without pay for a year and a half to do this. I think it's the major issue to be addressed in Congress, and I think we need to have people there who are willing to work across the aisles, blow past the special interests like Big Pharma and Big Insurance and try to come up with some common sense changes. Part of the problem with it, I think, it's been caught up in politics for way too long. It seems like there was a real effort. For seven years, we've heard from the party and majority currently that they were going to give us much better healthcare and cheaper, and all we've seen is, in the midst of this healthcare crisis, that the Congress and the administration has made it much worse instead of fulfilling that promise, and so we've got to address two of the biggest issues, I think.

One is Big Pharma. I was hopeful that the administration was going to come out with some really progressive programs that were going to allow Medicare, for example, to negotiate with Big Pharma, and that would allow us to import medications that are developed in this country back from Canada, Mexico, and Europe so that we can pay costs comparable to theirs instead of the two to seven and 10 times what they pay today for them. That's outrageous, and I haven't talked to one South Dakotan who thinks it's just that we should pay multiples for medications which in many cases are needed to keep our neighbors alive than Europe pays for the same drug.

Lori Walsh:                            If we turn on the news right now, I don't have it on in front of me, but there's a pretty good chance that the national news is talking about Donald Trump's tweets, or the Mueller investigation, or North Korea right now, but when you go into a South Dakota coffee shop, you're going to hear about healthcare. What does that tell you? Is that something that you're watching in Washington, politics really distracting from some of those big issues that we should be solving, or is it really, no, it's happening, it's not working, but the media is covering everything else? What is your sense?

Tim Bjorkman:                     Well, I hear some of each, but people, most people, no matter what party they belong to, just want government to work, and they're very frustrated that when there are big issues that can't be solved individually, and that government could help with, that we're not getting to the solutions there, so it's very frustrating for them. We, even this year, with the events of kind of undercutting some of the price supports and so on for the Affordable Care Act, and then rate hikes looming for next year, we saw our own healthcare costs, my wife Kay and I, go up by 42% as of July one. I almost hesitate to tell people that story, Lori, because they can top me, so often. It's a sad reality.

Tim Bjorkman:                     It's been devastating for middle-class families, and we pay on average $10,000 for every man, woman, and child for healthcare in America. That's double what the average of developed nations pay, so that, for a family of four, is like a surtax, if you will, just for healthcare of $20,000 for every family. It doesn't end there. It's the economic tapeworm that cuts away at our competitiveness internationally too, because our employers are dragging those high healthcare costs into the products they manufacture and then try to compete internationally with others for, so it's a massive problem at every level.

Beyond that, Lori, our political leaders haven't seemed to connect between the lack of access to affordable healthcare and untreated mental illness, addiction, workforce shortages that our employers and entrepreneurs all across the state face, because of people who are ill and addicted who aren't able to hold jobs, and then our prison numbers that have grown at 30 times the population rate over the last 40 years. These are all tied in together, Lori. We just left meeting with Sheriff Milstead here at the Minnehaha County Sheriff's Office and had a tour of the jail and listened to their perspectives. We've got to get a handle on untreated mental illness and addiction, because not to do so isn't humane, but it's also penny wise and pound foolish.

Lori Walsh:                            You've seen that as a judge, as well. You've got a little bit of personal experience and face to face with families.

Tim Bjorkman:                     Very much so. As a judge, and then before that on the parole board, and it's one of the things that drove me into this race. I've seen the comments of some of our Republican friends in this race who say, "I just wish we could authorize the states to be experimental with healthcare." Well, that's what the Medicaid expansion laws were for. They allowed for waivers, for all kinds of unique approaches to providing Medicaid, like charging modest premiums, having some deductibles, and then giving the beneficiary a savings account to use those deductibles as they saw fit, holding them accountable for unnecessary emergency room charges, and then bringing in hospitals and others to help make up the 10% gap that the state would have to pay when the federal government puts in 90% of it.

We rejected all that, so states like North Dakota, for example, have gotten on the order of $1.25 billion more than we did in our state to treat our sick and our addicted. We're paying our federal tax dollars for that expansion. We're just not getting any benefit of it here. That's going to support North Dakota, and Mitch McConnell's Kentucky and Mike Pence's Indiana, who expanded under his governorship with some creative waiver approaches. We've rejected that idea. This calls for a national solution to make sure that all people have access to affordable healthcare because, and that everybody pays what they can. We subsidize something like 75% of the American public on healthcare, and some of those are very high-income individuals, but we leave out middle-class people who don't qualify for the Affordable Care Act subsidies because their incomes are just a little too high, and they're paying atrocious amounts that we have to address. Some of them go without coverage altogether and just take their chances, and then we're also leaving out the impoverished who don't have minor children in the home, because they're not covered by Medicaid today.

Lori Walsh:                            Do you have a sense of optimism that if the people of South Dakota decide to send you to Washington, that as our lone voice in the House of Representatives, that you can do some of those things, like reaching ... How do you think that's even possible, or is ... I mean, I know you wouldn't be running if you didn't think you could make headway in that, but with a Republican administration and right now a Republican Congress, how do you make inroads?

Tim Bjorkman:                     Well, thankfully there are voices of reason in Congress, and not only in Congress, but across America there's been a change in attitude about the Affordable Care Act. It needs repairing. There's no doubt about it, and one of the things it hasn't done is an adequate job of controlling costs. Part of the problem is Big Pharma, Big Insurance, and some other big corporations involved in the delivery of our healthcare that keeps our costs higher than every other nation in the world. We've got to address that, and that's one of the key things that I have spoken out about since the day I entered, and that is, we need to send members to Congress who are going to fight for us in South Dakota and not be pawns of the special interests, like the Big Pharmas and the big insurance companies. We see that not just on healthcare, Lori, but on every issue, and you can't fight the special interests if you take their money.

I was just reading the other day, of 435 members of Congress, six, only six, don't take the corporations and the special interests' money that's funneled into political action committees called PACs. I want to be the seventh. I want to be the seventh member in Congress to do that. We have not taken a penny of PAC money in this campaign. We've pledged not to take any once I'm elected to go to service, so that in South Dakota our citizens will know that their lone representative, whether they agree with my position on a particular issue or not, will know that it's not bought and paid for, that it's genuinely gotten to. I think that's long overdue.

The first thing is, we need to send people who aren't looking for a career there, because if you go for a career in Washington, you're going to take their PAC money that they wave at you from the moment you get there in orientation. They want to buy your loyalty and your vote. That's why on the net neutrality bill, there's reason for concern when Senator Thune voted against it after taking some, what was it, 900-plus thousand dollars from internet service providers. That kind of money flowing into our Congressmen is just very hard for us in South Dakota to get our arms around, but it's something that we have to send people of character and conviction to Washington to stand up against. If we don't, if we don't do that, our budget deficit is going to continue to soar, Lori, and our children and grandchildren are going to know a very different America than the one we've known.

Lori Walsh:                            I want to dig a little deeper on this notion of sort of going up against Big Pharma, or standing up to the big insurance companies, and what does that look like? What's the legislative solution to that? Is it a philosophy, or does it play out in tangible, "We need to do this"?

Tim Bjorkman:                     Well, again, you see a big obstacle on all of these major issues in front of us, whether it's healthcare. It could be tax reform, where I believe that the wealthiest donors of the majority party were rewarded richly for their major donations to the party and those people in office, and so it starts that, that feathering the bed of our congressional members starts in this campaign stage, so the first question we should be asking our candidates are, "Are you accepting special interest money?" Because if they're taking the money now, they're going to take it when they get to Washington. We know that. Every other candidate in this race has accepted ... Well, let me say Shantel and Dusty have accepted special interest PAC money. You can see it in their reports.

Once they get to Congress, or once I get to Congress, that's when the money is going to really be waved in front of us, and each person will have to make a decision whether to accept it or not. If you want a career there, they make it very clear to you that you accept that PAC money that they wave in front of you, and when you take it, you will owe them your loyalty and your vote over time. We know this. Donald Trump helped illuminate it from his own experience all through the 2016 election, but it's deeper than that. Congressional leaders have their members dialing for dollars as soon as they get there, and they charge that for their committee choice based on how lucrative that committee is for fundraising. They charge a fee or a due for service.

I've spoken out against that here on your show before. Very offensively to me, Lori, it's added to by this. Today in Congress, both parties, when they're there in session from Tuesday to Thursday afternoon, they'll cast their votes at, say, 9:00 on two or three issues, and they'll each make a beeline to their respective Democratic and Republican national congressional headquarters, one on each side of the street, and they will start dialing for dollars. They become telemarketers, all too often, and they will dial for dollars until their beeper sound's telling them the next vote is up in Congress, and they'll go back and cast their votes and turn around and do the same thing, going up and down their donor lists, inviting people to the next fundraiser.

It's very offensive, so the first way you fight that is to support the stop bill, which would bar our Congressmen from doing fundraising during the time Congress is in session. That is the least we should expect of them. The second is, we should not support leaders for either party who are going to keep this offensive congressional dues system in place. They both need to end it at the same time. I've pledged not to support any party leader who will support that what I think is a corrupt system. I've called on our Republican friends to do the same. They've been silent, but this issue is catching on a little bit. A candidate, a Republican candidate in Idaho is running on this same issue, so it's starting to get traction, and there are a lot of people in Congress who hate this, Lori, for good reason, because they don't want to be under this system where they're constantly raising money for the party.

Lori Walsh:                            I'm going to cut you off, because we just have a couple minutes left, and you're welcome to come back any time, of course, but step one in sort of tackling and standing up to Big Pharma is to stop taking the money and sort of reform some of that. What is the legislative solution to the cost of healthcare, though? Once you're freed from, can you in a couple minutes just give us a teaser of what that looks like once  you've gone through step one?

Tim Bjorkman:                     Let me give you three. One is, we ought to be able to at least import drugs back in from Mexico, Canada, and Europe at costs that are comparable to what they pay in those places. That bill failed in the Senate, and 10 Democrats, sadly, voted against it. All of them got Big Pharma money, so we need people who aren't going to take their money to vote in the people's interest. That's thing one.

Thing two, price transparency. I mean, we ought to hold hospitals and other providers responsible to tell us what the price of the product is. None of us would go into a café and order even a hamburger without knowing how much it cost, yet every day all across America, we have these transactions where neither the provider nor the receiver of the services in the medical field have any idea what it's costing, and statistics show that lowers the prices, just to know.

Third, we need massive reformation of our administrative billing services. We have all these providers and all these insurance companies with different forms, and the providers all have their own computer systems. We've seen uniformity all across other industries, and that would allow for a much more streamlined and cost-saving process in those regards.

Four, we need to have a way for people who are otherwise foreclosed from affordable healthcare to buy it, to get into it, and to pay for it. That's why I support a Medicare option so that if you don't have access to other healthcare, you ought to be able to sign up and pay for Medicare. If you need help, you ought to get some subsidies just like the other 75% of Americans.

Lori Walsh:                            We'll leave it there. You can join SDPB tonight for the Republican primary debate, featuring the three candidates running for office of U.S. House. That is at 8:00 PM Central, 7:00 Mountain, but this has been our conversation with Democrat Tim Bjorkman. Come back any time. I'm sure we'll talk to you between now and the general election frequently. Thanks for your time.

Tim Bjorkman:                     Thanks for having me again, Lori.

 

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