Why Governor Bullock says it took so long to introduce Medicaid Expansion bill

Governor Steve Bullock (D-MT), left, and Representative Chuck Hunter (D-Missoula) sit for an interview in the Governor's office Wednesday

Governor Steve Bullock (D-MT), left, and Representative Chuck Hunter (D-Missoula) sit for an interview in the Governor’s office Wednesday

Looking to move forward on one of the biggest, and most controversial, issues before the Montana Legislature this session, Governor Steve Bullock introduced his bill for Medicaid Expansion this week. The expansion is rolled into a larger health proposal Bullock calls Access Health Montana (HB590)

The Governor’s office says his bill will expand Medicaid to 70-thousand needy Montanans and create five-thousand jobs in the next year. The Federal Government will cover 100-percent of the expansion costs, but the state would face about $5 million in administrative costs related to the expansion and other requirements of the Affordable Care Act over the next two years, according to a report by the Montana Department of Health and Human Services.

The bill’s introduction comes nearly two-thirds of the way through the session. Bullock says that has given “the public the opportunity to start paying attention to this whereas many things get buried at the start of the session.”

Representative Chuck Hunter (D-Helena) is carrying Bullock’s Access Health Montana Bill. He says the extra time has allowed for discussions behind the scenes on the bill, “but I think it’s allowed us a chance to be thoughtful about what’s in the bill and to really make sure out of the many approaches to transforming the system that the approach was right.”

But the late introduction is giving Republican lawmakers pause.

Representative Mark Blasdel (R-Somers)

Representative Mark Blasdel (R-Somers)

“We’ve been waiting for quite some time to see the Governor’s bill, and finally it’s introduced,” said House Speaker Rep. Mark Blasdel (R-Somers) Blasdel has assigned the bill to the House Human Services Committee where a hearing will be held on March 25th.

“This is a billion dollar decision for Montana,” said Republican Senator Jason Priest (R-Red Lodge), “We’re gonna make it in 15 days? It’s irresponsible.”

Priest is sponsoring a bill which would push back any implementation of Medicaid Expansion. As Mike Dennison of Lee Newspapers reports, the bill would create a bi-partisan committee to study Medicaid Expansion over the next two-year  legislative interim period.

Priest says the first reason for legislators to study their options is there is no hard deadline for the expansion. “It’s not like looking at this option in more depth prevents us from taking advantage of any expansion opportunity.”

Priest does not support Bullock’s bill as written. He advocates other reform systems for the uninsured, such as the idea of providing premium support for low-income Montanans to buy health insurance on the open-market.

Senator Jason Priest (R-Red Lodge)

Senator Jason Priest (R-Red Lodge)

“If we can reform the existing Medicaid system and the expanded population then I’m willing to consider voting to implement a reformed system under Obamacare,” Priest said.

Representative Hunter calls Priest’s bill to create a study committee on Medicaid Expansion a delay tactic. He says the Legislature also created a study committee after voting in 2011 not to create a state-run healthcare exchange under the Affordable Care Act.

“That study bill really resulted in no meaningful study and no progress on the issue. That’s how I see this proposal as well,” Hunter said.

“If we don’t do this now,” Bullock said, “if we study it for two years or four years or six years. Those are Montana tax dollars that will be going to cover insurance for individuals in Arizona, North Dakota, Nevada and other states.”

Senator Priest argues Montana already receives more money than it puts in from the federal government, “so Montana dollars aren’t going somewhere else, we’re already receiving everybody else’s dollars.”