HELENA – After an initial rush, the rate of people signing up for the state's Medicaid expansion program has slowed as health care officials prepare for next month's rollout.

Federal health officials approved Montana's program last month, making the state the 30th to expand Medicaid to the working poor under President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act.

Federal approval was needed because the state's program will require recipients to pay premiums and co-payments, and the program will be administered by an outside company.

About 5,500 people signed up during the first week of November, when enrollment opened. Since then, an additional 5,000 people have enrolled, Jessica Rhoades of the state Department of Public Health and Human Services told the committee overseeing the expansion on Tuesday.

Department director Richard Opper said the initial rush showed "a pent-up need" for the program. Now, officials across the state are working to sign up more of the estimated 70,000 people who are eligible. "There are people working nonstop on this," Opper said.

Montana's program is the only one in the nation that will be administered by an outside company, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana. The program's federal approval comes with the condition that it is required to have 90 percent of health care facilities and 80 percent of physicians in its network.

Blue Cross President Mike Frank said the company so far has contracted with 75 percent of the state's facilities and between 70 and 80 percent of its doctors. He is confident that the requirements will be met by the end of December, he said.

Blue Cross also plans to complete its systems to process claims, establish portals for providers and patients and mail out identification cards by the Jan. 1 effective date, Frank said. "They'll have their ID cards, and they'll be ready to go," Frank said.

Outbrain