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Purgason launches Senate bid, knocks both parties' approach toward health care

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 23, 2009 - State Sen. Chuck Purgason, Missouri's newest official candidate for the U.S. Senate, isn't too thrilled with President Barack Obama's plans for revamping the nation's health care system.

"You can't make promises you can't pay for,'' said Purgason, R-Caulfield, who formally kicked off his bid Thursday. He emphasized that he opposes any sort of government-run health care system, as espoused by some Democrats.

But Purgason also objects to the approach of Republicans in Congress. "What Republicans have done is sit on the fence and ride (the current) system out,'' Purgason said in a telephone interview Thursday. "Republicans cannot continue to just sit there. I don't think 'do nothing' is an option.''

Purgason implied that has been the philosophy of his Republican rival, U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt of Strafford, the point person of House Republicans on health care.

Purgason made a similar left-unsaid-but-intended jab at Blunt when he laid out his campaign pledges. Among them: "No members of my family will be a lobbyist."

Blunt's wife has been a prominent lobbyist in Washington, while son Andy Blunt is a well-known lobbyist in Jefferson City.

Purgason, 49, has been in the Legislature since 1997 (serving in the House until he switched to the Senate in 2005) and operates a commercial quail and pheasant hatchery and hunting preserve.

In keeping with his bolo-tie image, Purgason launched his campaign Thursday afternoon before family and supporters at a small cafe run by friends in West Plains, Mo.

The Ozark Cafe, he said, reflects the small-town culture where people display "a lot of common sense."

"There's a lot of wisdom and experience around those tables,'' said Purgason.

As he first explained weeks ago, Purgason's campaign will center on his reputation as a low-tax budget-cutter who believes in smaller government.

His other campaign pledges include voting only for balanced federal budgets, opposing all congressional "earmarks,'' rejecting all stimulus measures and turning away all campaign contributions from political action committees that represent groups or firms who got federal bail-out money.

The national debate on health care fits right in with his past and his philosophy.

Purgason was a leader of the Missouri Legislature's action in 2005 to trim the state's Medicaid rolls by 100,000 people, and cut benefits for an estimated 200,000 more. Purgason believes that it would be smarter, and cheaper, for the government to offer vouchers to low-income people to help them buy their own health insurance, and otherwise "transfer people into the private system."

As it stands, he said, about 60 percent of the insured public have private insurance, while 40 percent get government coverage -- either Medicare, Medicaid or the Veterans Administration. Because the federal programs pay less to health-care providers, they're charging the privately insured more, which leads to higher insurance premiums, Purgason said.

"What you have to do is change the culture,'' Purgason said. "You've got to turn people into a consumer that demands a quality product'' and treats health insurance like they view auto insurance.

But advancing his view will require Purgason to first defeat Blunt and any other GOP opponents in the Republican primary next summer, then outpoll the likely Democrat -- Secretary of State Robin Carnahan -- in November 2010.

Purgason said he's now focusing on assembling a fundraising team, while traveling the state.

Although he admits he doesn't expect to raise as much as his bettern-known rivals, Purgason said he was pleased with how much he has collected just this week.

"We had a very good day today,'' Purgason said with a chuckle. "We're not at 'zero' anymore."

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.