$6 Billion Decision

By Beacon Staff

Next week Montana’s Legislature begins hearings on the most critical bills of the session. Lawmakers must choose whether to expand Medicaid in Montana, with the federal government paying for 100 percent of the cost over the next three years and 90 percent thereafter.
Over the next eight years Montana’s economy could see a $6 billion boost with as many as 12,700 new jobs.

State Senate President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, recently wrote a letter in statewide newspapers outlining the Republican opposition to the plan, which would allow all Montana citizens earning less than $15,400 annually to have access to federal Medicaid health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

Essmann highlighted fraud and lobbyists as main reasons to not spend the federal money in Montana. Montana citizens earning less than $15,400 annually are permitted access to free Medicaid health insurance if, and only if, state lawmakers agree.

Medicaid expansion in Montana would bring in billions of dollars into local economies – $2 billion over the next four years. That creates nearly $500 million in annual labor income. That’s one huge investment into the statewide economy.

Essmann’s colleague is Speaker of the House Mark Blasdel, R-Somers, who recently indicated opposition to the federal money by saying, “But obviously our party has a lot of concerns about the expansion.”

Both Blasdel and Essmann politically dislike the prospects of more federal money brought into Montana.

Politically, Speaker Blasdel and President Essmann are the only lawmakers in Helena wielding enough power to stop the billions of federal dollars from being invested in Montana. Both are term-limited veteran legislators.

Will these statesmen be more concerned about spending billions of federal dollars in Montana than providing local citizens access to lifesaving health care?

Ironically, state senators receive nearly $38,000 per four-year term in taxpayer subsidized health insurance. It’s great coverage, paid for by Montana taxpayers.

If the Republican-controlled Montana Legislature wants to stop Medicaid expansion, they have the political power to block the billions in federal dollars from coming into the state.

But, it is hard to fathom that the rank-and-file Republicans would willingly attach such an anti-health care label to their political party. The GOP previously opposed taking federal funding for elderly meals programs in the Flathead and, so far this session, opposes federal funding for lifesaving women’s health care funding for places like Kalispell.

With recent anti-Medicaid flyers hitting Kalispell household mailboxes, the far-right GOP is aiming to table healthcare expansion in Montana.

Rep. Pat Noonan, D-Ramsay, will begin hearings on his Medicaid expansion bill early next week. Noonan has a moderate bill offering Montana citizens earning less than $15,400 access to the same federal Medicaid insurance offered to other states in the nation.

Some states included in the expansion a three-year reauthorization of the program, while others plan using the federal money to subsidize eligible citizens to buy private insurance from the online exchange marketplace.

Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s modest proposal is Access Health Montana. Bullock’s plan reportedly also includes funding for Montana students attending medical school in adjacent states, physician residency in rural areas, a health trust account and increased preventive care options.

Rejecting federal money rarely reduces national debt. Budgets transfer monies to neighboring states willing to accept billions in federal dollars boosting their local economies.

The legislative session ends next month. Republicans may ideologically reject investing billions of federal dollars from Montana’s economy. But hopefully statesmen like Bullock and Noonan will find a political solution with statesmen like Blasdel and Essmann.

Next month the GOP-controlled Montana Legislature votes on the fate of health care for nearly 70,000 citizens. The vote is about 12,700 jobs statewide, and whether $6 billion is a good investment in Montana.

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