Opinion

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Uncommon Ground

Working While Sick

This is a new year; let it be a gentle one

Here we go again. It’s another new year, full of promise and fresh ideas on how best to move Montana forward.

One hundred and fifty state lawmakers congregate in Helena, bringing ideas from their respective communities to the capitol city. In Helena, ideas transform into things like bills, amendments, and appropriations.

Some ideas are from a past Legislature. Some originate from bipartisan interim committees or the governor. Some are fresh ideas from a hometown. A handful of ideas pass into law. Most linger in committee, never debated on a full floor.

First out of the chute are self-imposed legislative rules. This sets the tone for the entire Legislature. It’s the big vote.

Next is pay, which elected lawmakers need to work. A normal Session runs from now to the end of April. There’s work later. It’s work that consumes time.

Lawmakers are allotted room and board, wages, travel reimbursements, a retirement match, constituency funds, technology money, and full health insurance or cash allowance.

Working four months every couple years for full-time health insurance is a good deal. This Legislature will propose more pay. Many state lawmakers, like many hardworking Montanans, feel underpaid.

The cost measure of a Legislature is House Bill 1 or the Feed Bill. This year’s Feed Bill proposes a 7 percent increase for the upcoming two-year cycle. The cost per state legislator to run lawmaking increased from $67,512 in 2015, to $77,280 in 2017, to a proposed $82,815 this year.

Since I voted on a Feed Bill a decade ago, the cost of state lawmaking has increased $22,000 per lawmaker to run our four-month, every-two-years Legislature.

Lawmakers’ benefits have escalated over time. Health insurance is just expensive. State lawmakers deserve health care, as do the rest of us. One hundred thousand Montanans are counting on lawmakers not to mess up Medicaid.

Legislators’ benefits should matter less. But some members are infatuated with making the lives of the 100,000 Montanans on Medicaid much more complicated. Loud state lawmakers don’t like another poverty-earning citizen being eligible for subsidized health insurance.

In Montana, as in most of our United States, citizens earning poverty wages can obtain Medicaid health care.

Legislative leaders indicated a need for stringent work requirements and hefty asset testing for citizens enrolling into Montana Medicaid.

If lawmakers placed such work requirements upon themselves, not many would qualify for health insurance. Full-time health insurance for part-time work is just good benefits.

New Hampshire proposed new requirements on state Medicaid enrollees requiring citizens to perform 100 hours of community engagement every month. Lawmakers spent nearly two years crafting a legislative compromise continuing federal health-care funds to state residents living in poverty.

Monthly reporting was a requirement of the compromise assuring those enrolling in Medicaid work or seek work, volunteer for community service, or go to school or training.

Part of the good cause for missing the 100-hour monthly requirement included things like emergencies, hospitalization, weather, transportation or childcare. The cure included completing missed hours in subsequent months.

The compromise passed the New Hampshire mustard. The state sent it to the Feds, who dramatically altered the compromise by adding significantly tougher work requirements and disability exemptions. Things state lawmakers didn’t want and knew wouldn’t work.

Montana may send a complicated Medicaid law to the Feds, which might alter the deal like with New Hampshire. The Feds said take it or leave it.

Other states have enforced onerous work reporting requirements on health-care enrollees. When residents cannot meet the arduous reporting, for whatever reason, they’re reportedly dumped off federal Medicaid insurance. Out into the cold, so to say, pull up your boots.

People need health care, especially when we’re sick. When we’re sick every thing is harder on our family and us. This is a new year. Let it be a gentle one.

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