HELENA - Legislative officials agreed Friday to a Lee Newspapers request to release the names of all legislators accepting health insurance benefits from the state, revealing that all but seven of the 150 lawmakers chose to receive the health benefits, worth up to $733 a month.
Within hours of the information's release, the Montana House refused to consider a bill putting into state law that the information on lawmaker health benefits should always be made public.
The House voted 54-38 to defeat a motion to bring Senate Bill 284 to the House floor, two days after majority Republicans on a House panel voted to kill the measure.
"This bill was a stunt to try to embarrass Republicans over national health care," said Rep. Cary Smith, R-Billings. "I voted against this bill because I think it's a political stunt and I think it's a silly stunt."
All voting not to bring the bill to the floor were Republicans. Eight Republicans and 30 Democrats voted for the motion.
Rep. Ellie Hill, D-Missoula, who made the motion to bring the bill to the floor, said the public should have the permanent right to know which lawmakers are accepting taxpayer-funded health coverage.
"The same members of this body who introduced and voted for bills to overturn the federal health reform act are the same members who want to hide the fact that they get subsidized government health care from the very people who pay for it," she said. "I think the hypocrisy of this is thick."
Failure of the bill, however, had no effect on Friday's public release of lawmakers' choices on whether to accept taxpayer-funded health coverage or subsidies.
Legislative officials released the information after reconsidering an earlier legal opinion that said the names could not be released, because of privacy concerns - a decision that prompted the introduction of Senate Bill 284 by Sen. Anders Blewett, D-Great Falls.
Blewett said he introduced the bill so there would be no legal question over whether that information should be made public now or in the future.
Legislators, who are in session for four months every two years, can choose to be on the state employee health plan for their entire term - and get $733 a month from the state to offset their share of the cost of that coverage. The lawmaker's share of the coverage can range up to $922 a month, if they add family members to the policy.
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If they don't choose to be on the state plan, they can accept up to $733 a month from the state to offset the cost of their own private health insurance.
Information released Friday showed that 94 legislators have signed on to the state health plan and 49 chose to accept payments to offset their private health insurance costs.
Two Democrats and five Republicans declined any coverage or subsidy.
Ninety-five percent of Republicans in the Legislature are accepting the health coverage benefits, and 96 percent of Democrats are doing the same.
The Missoulian State Bureau asked in mid-January for the names of lawmakers accepting taxpayer-funded health coverage.
That request was denied after the Legislature's chief counsel, Rob Stutz, said lawmakers' privacy overrode the public's right to know.
Blewett then introduced SB284 to require disclosure of the names. The measure easily passed the Senate last month, but the Republican-controlled House Human Services Committee killed it Wednesday.
Lee Newspapers then renewed its request for release of the names and said it was prepared to file suit to get them.
On Friday morning, Susan Fox, executive director of the Legislative Services Division, said the Legislature had reviewed its position further and decided to provide the information.
Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.