Bullock Opens Door to Medicaid Expansion Tinkering

By Beacon Staff

HELENA — Gov. Steve Bullock said Friday that he is open to modifying the proposal to take federal money in order to expand Medicaid to the working poor, one of several big budget issues that remain unsolved with two weeks left in the session.

A Senate panel on Friday advanced one of the major pieces when it endorsed a pay raise plan for state employees. The full Senate was scheduled to vote Saturday on the state’s main $9 billion budget bill.

Bullock said the fate of Medicaid expansion, and other priorities like his plan to issue bonds to build new education and job training buildings, are still up in the air.

The governor has sparred with Republicans over Medicaid expansion all session. One plan passed the Senate but has stalled amid GOP concerns that the state could eventually be left on the hook for a big bill.

Bullock said he is open to an alternative plan that uses the federal money to help people buy private health insurance. But it has to provide meaningful coverage to workers earning up to 138 percent of the poverty level.

The governor’s original plan, which expanded Medicaid coverage to that group, could cover up to an additional 70,000 people. A developing alternative would use federal money to help low-income workers buy private insurance on the government-run exchange that will be started next year under federal health care reform.

Bullock said he would have to review the proposal to ensure it works.

“Providing the coverage is essential,” Bullock said.

Republicans in the Legislature have trimmed Bullock’s request for a pay raise for state employees, giving the governor discretion in how to dole the money out. House Bill 13 was endorsed in the Senate Finance Committee late Friday in a 16-6 vote.

State Sen. Alan Olson, R-Roundup, said the state risks losing qualified workers, many who have labored under a pay freeze for years, if lawmakers don’t approve the measure.

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