Auditor Seeks Increase in State-Subsidized Health Insurance

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – State Auditor John Morrison wants an $18 million expansion in the state-subsidized insurance pool for small businesses.

Morrison, who regulates insurance, says he will seek the expansion as part of the executive budget planning process that concludes at the end of the year, in advance of the 2009 legislative session.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s office was cool to the idea.

“The administration has been cautioning folks that this will be a belt-tightening session,” said spokeswoman Sarah Elliott. “This is a request for a lot of money and will be considered along with the hundreds of requests during the executive planning process.”

Morrison said he was confident the governor would support the proposal.

“I anticipate that we will talk about it, negotiate about it,” Morrison said. “It’s a program that deserves to be expanded. Governor Schweitzer, I know, is familiar with that need.”

Morrison said his request would allow 700 businesses, and their roughly 5,000 employees, on the waiting list for Insure Montana to get insurance. He said the program has had a waiting list almost since its inception in 2005.

“Without this proposal to expand the program, these businesses will never get in,” Morrison said. “It’s important to take care of all our small businesses that need the help, not just a select few.”

It will cost $11.3 million in the next two-year budget cycle to clear the waiting list, and another $6.7 million to reduce a cap on subsidy levels for premium payments. The program is currently costing $22 million.

If included in the executive budget, it would go to the 2009 Legislature for approval. Morrison is term-limited and will be leaving office at the end of the year.

The Insure Montana program was launched with money from a $1-per-pack cigarette tax. It currently helps provide insurance to about 9,000 people, Morrison said.

Morrison is also backing a proposed initiative that backers are trying to qualify for the November ballot. If it qualifies and is approved by voters, it would extend health coverage to uninsured children and cost about $30 million.

Morrison said he believes the measure will get the needed signatures to qualify for the ballot.

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