HELENA — A small group of Democratic activists from Bozeman traveled to the state capitol Monday to tell state lawmakers that they should vote for a bill that would expand Medicaid eligibility using federal funds.
Two questions arose during their preparation for the day: Should they spend time lobbying every legislator they could, including the Republicans who have already made their opposition known? As an alternative, they talked about seeking out “fence-sitters.”
“Some people like talking to people from the other side who will never come over in support,” said Dan Lourie, a member of the Gallatin Democrats who made the drive. “I’m not one of them.”
Twenty-eight states have expanded Medicaid eligibility. Montana and four other states are deliberating expansion. Several states have sought and received a waiver to allow them to use Obamacare funding to buy private plans for low-income Americans.
The second question that the Bozeman activists debated before they descended on the capitol was what should they say. Lourie chose the morality argument. Fellow Democratic activist Suzanne Tarpey said an economic argument was better suited for those who oppose it.
“I think it’s important to tell Republicans that Montana is losing $1.8 million per day,” Tarpey said.
Under House Bill 249, the Medicaid expansion bill backed by Gov. Steve Bullock and Democrats, an estimated 65,000 low-income Montanans making less than 138 percent of the federal poverty line would get coverage. The federal government would pay the bill.
According to an analysis by the Montana Budget and Policy Center, Gallatin County has more than 5,000 uninsured adults who would be insured if the Legislature acted.
Rep. Art Wittich of Bozeman, chairman of the House Health and Human Services Committee, opposes Medicaid expansion but scheduled a hearing for the bill on March 6.
House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, said if the bill fails in committee, Democrats would attempt to “blast” it to the floor. Blast motions need 60 votes from the House floor to move out of committee.
Republicans have a different plan they’re calling “Big Sky Health.” They say that it is a practical and innovative alternative that is not conditional on federal funds.
“We want everyone in the Medicaid gap to be helped,” Wittich told the Chronicle on Monday. “We think this plan is better because it’s long term, state managed, and can be immediately executed.”
Under one bill by Wittich, the uninsured Montanans are broken into subgroups: veterans, parents and childless adults who are able-bodied and addressed with existing policies. Another measure would create a fund using a state tax collected on healthcare premiums to pay for the “catastrophic care” for the uninsured.
“We can do this ourselves,” Wittich said. “We think its going to be cheaper, but we’re not sure.”
Still another bill is being developed by Republican Sen. Ed Buttrey of Great Falls. Bullock’s staff have been in contact with Buttrey to discuss a possible compromise bill, said spokesman Dave Parker.
“The Republican plan puts politics ahead of people and what’s best for Montana,” Parker said. “Their plan covers fewer people, costs Montana taxpayers more and does nothing to lessen the burdens of uncompensated care, which is bankrupting Montana’s rural hospitals. We can and must do better.”