HELENA – Republicans on a Senate committee late Friday afternoon pushed through their alternative proposal to provide subsidized health coverage to poor Montanans starting in 2014, calling it a workable compromise that also could reform Medicaid.
“The compromise is to come up with any sources (of money) that we could, to provide (coverage) for as many people as possible,” said Sen. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, one of the architects of the plan. “We’re not diving in with both feet. We’re looking to come back with a better, expanded solution.”
But Democrats on the Senate Public Health Committee voted against the plan, calling it a hastily concocted scheme whose cost and effects are unknown.
“There’s an old saying, if you like the law or sausage, don’t watch either being made,” said Sen. Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook. “I don’t know what type of sausage we’re making here. …
“Good try guys, but I don’t think you have a product here that we really ought to be sending out the door.”
The committee voted 4-3 along party lines to amend the GOP health coverage plan into House Bill 623 and then approve the bill, sending it to the Senate floor for debate early next week.
Republicans, who control majorities in both houses of the Legislature, indicated the measure eventually will end up in a House-Senate conference committee that would craft a final version before sending it to Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock for his signature.
The Bullock administration, however, would rather expand federally funded Medicaid to extend health coverage to 70,000 low-income Montanans next year and opposes HB623.
Bob Runkel, a branch manager for the state Department of Public Health and Human Services, testified against HB623 on Friday, saying it would not provide health coverage for many poor people who need it.
“It would result in the poorest people with the least likelihood of gaining access to health care coverage,” he said. “We simply believe that is just not right.”
A Medicaid-expansion bill remains alive in the House, but faces an uphill battle for approval, leaving uncertain the fate of any health coverage proposal for Montanans earning less than 100 percent of the federal poverty level.
HB623 came out of the House 10 days ago as a bare-bones bill, with Republicans expecting their Senate majority to devise a health coverage plan and insert it into the bill.
The proposal, which would use state money to help poor, uninsured Montanans qualify for federal subsidies to buy private health insurance next year, is meant as an alternative to Bullock’s proposal to expand Medicaid.
Buttrey and Sen. Jason Priest, R-Red Lodge, unveiled extensive amendments to the bill Friday afternoon as they presented the bill to the committee, which Priest chairs.
Buttrey said the amended bill would take money from several sources, such as Insure Montana, a state program the currently subsidizes health insurance for small-business employees, and use it to provide grants to those under 100 percent of the federal poverty level to help them buy private insurance on an “exchange.”
Starting next year, those buying insurance from the exchange, which is an Internet marketplace, can get federal subsidies to help pay the cost of the insurance.
However, Buttrey said the only people eligible for the grants would be those with jobs, full-time students or those caring for a dependent family member.
Buttrey could not answer questions about how many people would be eligible, or how much the program would cost, saying a fiscal analysis will be done before next week.