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Guest Column

Healthcare for Working Montanans Benefits Families, Small Businesses, and Our Future

It’s hard to imagine how Governor Gianforte could think that depriving Montanans of healthcare would help families or the businesses that rely on them

By Susan Webber

Few actions by Governor Greg Gianforte have hurt Montana’s families, rural areas, and small businesses more than his Administration’s incompetence and callousness toward working and caregiving Montanans receiving healthcare through the state-federal Medicaid program.

Many Montanans ask me for details about Medicaid. Today’s program benefits mostly lower income working families often holding two or more jobs, and 74% of recipients are working or a caretaker. In 2015, the Montana Legislature expanded Medicaid coverage as have 40 other states.

This expansion is working. It reduced the state’s uninsured rate by 50% and provided more preventive services for maladies like breast and colon cancer, hypertension, and diabetes. The coverage also decreased ER visits and hospitalizations — the most expensive way to provide healthcare that all of us indirectly pay for.

In 2020, roughly 300,000 Montanans (including one-third of our kids) received healthcare through Medicaid. These services increase the health and wellbeing of Montanans and improve Montana’s economic productivity. Medicaid also is a solid budget deal for Montana. Since March 2020, Montana has received a 9-to-1 federal match for expanding Medicaid.

Unfortunately, in the past year more than 120,000 Montanans have been kicked off Medicaid by Governor Gianforte. These actions will result in little cost savings, but the loss of healthcare will cause great harm to children, workers, rural healthcare providers, and small businesses.

A better, smarter Administration would have prevented this disaster and instead would make sure that Medicaid expansion continues to benefit Montanans and is protected when it’s up for renewal in next year’s legislative session.

Let’s drill down on the dangers of the enrollment rollback under Governor Gianforte. First, children. Caring for all kids is both the right thing to do and a wise investment in our future, and the Medicaid program is the largest health insurance provider for children in the state. Sadly, in the last year a distressing 24,000 kids have lost access to health coverage through Medicaid.

Second, Medicaid is a critical source of coverage for rural Montanans. In 2022, more than two-thirds of Montana Medicaid enrollees lived in rural areas. Because of increased Medicaid coverage, uncompensated medical care costs for Montana’s Critical Access Hospitals and Rural Health Clinics declined by 35% ($22 million) between 2016 and 2021. So, while 72 rural hospitals recently closed nationwide, in Montana no rural hospitals have closed since Medicaid expansion passed.

Third, Medicaid expansion provided coverage to more than 19,000 American Indians in 2021, giving tribal members access to healthcare that was previously inaccessible.

Fourth, the program benefits many small businesses that rely on part-time and lower income workers. Providing these workers with healthcare means fewer sick days, less absenteeism and greater productivity to help businesses meet their bottom line.

Medicaid also strengthens our statewide economy. As increased healthcare coverage and spending circulates through Montana, it supports about 7,500 jobs and creates roughly $475 million in personal income. Just more than half of these impacts are in healthcare (often in rural areas) with other benefits impacting local sectors of the economy such as restaurants and retail.

It’s hard to imagine how Governor Gianforte could think that depriving Montanans of healthcare would help families or the businesses that rely on them. It just doesn’t make sense from either a compassionate or economic perspective. It’s time to put Montanans first and Montana Democrats will work hard in the Legislature to protect common sense programs like Medicaid that work for the benefit of our families and businesses.

State Sen. Susan Webber, a Democrat, represents Senate District 8, which covers Glacier County and portions of Flathead, Lake and Pondera counties, including the Blackfeet Reservation. Additionally, she serves as a Democratic Senate Whip.

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