HELENA – Gov. Steve Bullock on Wednesday unveiled more details about his plans to extend government health insurance to 70,000 low-income Montanans through expansion of Medicaid, and said the bill to enact it will be introduced soon.
Bullock said expanding Medicaid will improve health for thousands, reduce health care costs for all of Montana and create 5,000 jobs in its first year and many more in ensuing years.
“We need a Montana-made solution that will increase access to coverage and stabilize costs,” he said at a Capitol news conference. “This job-creating measure will expand access to quality care for nearly 70,000 more Montanans.“
Bullock said the bill to expand Medicaid, still in the drafting stages, will be carried by House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena.
“Many of my colleagues arrived here eight weeks ago, saying they were here to create jobs,” Hunter said. “I’m here today to say, this is that opportunity.”
Hunter said money from the Medicaid expansion will go to “every county in our state and make sure our rural health care providers can continue to survive” and will cut the cost of health care delivery for every Montanan.
Medicaid is the state-federal program that provides health coverage for the poor. Under the proposal, Medicaid coverage would be extended to all Montanans earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or $15,400 for a single person and $32,500 for a family of four.
The expansion, which would start in 2014, would be financed almost entirely by the federal government for three years. The Bullock administration has estimated it will bring $750 million of federal funds into the state the next two years.
Leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature, which must approve the expansion, have said they oppose it.
House Speaker Mark Blasdel, R-Somers, said Wednesday that Bullock’s proposal will get a “fair hearing” before a House committee, whenever it’s finally introduced.
“We’ll be interested in hearing his ideas,” Blasdel said. “But obviously our party has a lot of concerns about the expansion. We still haven’t seen the bill.”
Republicans have said they don’t think it’s wise to rely so much on federal spending, when Congress is trying to find ways to reduce the national debt.
Bullock said in addition to expanding Medicaid, his proposal, dubbed Access Health Montana, will increase funding to assist Montana students to attend medical school in neighboring states, increase funding for physician residency programs in Montana, and encourage the use of something called “patient-centered medical homes,” which emphasize preventive care.
It also will include a “health trust account” that the Legislature would use to improve health care delivery and access, and increase the rates that Medicaid pays to health-care providers by 2 percent a year the next two years.
When asked how he’d counter arguments that the expansion is a risky venture of using federal money that may not be available in future years, Bullock noted that several Republican governors who opposed the federal health reform law are choosing to embrace the Medicaid expansion that’s part of it.
“I’m in pretty good company, at least,” he said. “If they’re trusting the federal government, then I certainly can.“
He also said he’s had many conversations with legislators, Democratic and Republican, about the expansion, and that he hopes they will talk to their constituents about the proposal when they go home for the mid-session break, starting Thursday.