Health Insurance for All

By Beacon Staff

Rep. Pat Noonan, D-Ramsay, is one of the handfuls of moderates serving in the 2013 Montana Legislature. Noonan serves with other moderates like Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad. Jones carries the new natural resources component for public school financing.

Notably Noonan sponsored this Legislature’s most critical task, to implement Montana’s Medicaid expansion.

Over the next four years $2.2 billion of national health insurance money is available for all local people earning between 100 and 138 percent of Federal Poverty Level.

About 68,000 Montanans would be eligible for health care under the expansion. The state’s cost over four years is $35 million. Given the sizable budget surpluses the state enjoys, that’s feasible and already built in.

University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research estimate expansion will create and support some 12,000 jobs in Montana. About 60 percent of these jobs would be in the health care industry with an average wage of $42,000. That’s about $500 million in annual labor income.

State ratification of the Medicaid expansion was conditioned in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding the Affordable Care Act. Many conservative states across the nation are surprisingly embracing the concept.

In Montana, Medicaid expansion is on shaky ground. Republicans have yet to embrace expansion, and routinely demonizing it as more welfare.

Last session the GOP-controlled Legislature sought to cut all federal funding for programs like Meals on Wheels and Title X women’s health services, provided in places like Kalispell. Without former Gov. Brian Schweitzer these programs would not be a part of Montana.

In a repeat of the last session, a GOP-controlled subcommittee again cut federal funding to 27,000 Montanans seeking health care services under the federal Title X in public clinics in places like Kalispell.

Nationally, the GOP is more receptive to Medicaid expansion than to the refundable tax credit in a health insurance marketplace called Exchanges. The Exchange will allow individuals, earning between 138 and 400 percent of federal poverty level, to purchase significantly cheaper private health insurance.

Late this year people can register for the federal tax credit on the Exchange. Individuals with incomes of 138 percent of poverty can purchase health insurance at under $25 per month. Individuals earning 400 percent of poverty have rates capped around $350 per month.

Montana lawmakers already receive taxpayer-subsidized health insurance nearing $800 per month. Neither the insurance Exchange nor Medicaid expansion offers personal benefits to lawmakers. Small business employers may also help workers transition into the insurance Exchange.

Many area wage earners qualify for the refundable and very sizable tax credits.

It’s hard to imagine that House Speaker Mark Blasdel, R-Somers, or Senate President Jeff Essmann, R –Billings, would let so much health care, for so many people, not pass the Legislature. But recently the GOP leadership has been open with journalists and frankly it sounds bad for locals needing health care.

The 2013 Legislature will surely be remembered for how it treats the health care of 68,000 Montana citizens.

Without expansion, 37,000 Montanans fall into yet another donut hole. Those earning between 100 and 138 percent of poverty would become neither eligible for free Medicaid health insurance nor the refundable federal tax credits of the Exchange.

The Legislature must get serious about job expansion and more solemn about the real life need for health care. It should pass Medicaid expansion as Noonan’s bill proposes.

Noonan’s bill brings a staggering amount of money into Montana’s economy, creating thousands of jobs. Tens of thousands of people would become insured in places like Somers, Butte, Columbia Falls and Whitefish.

The second half of the legislative session is here. Politicians should refocus on policy that matters and help local people by passing the biggest health care law in Montana’s history.

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