HELENA – The bill expanding Medicaid to bring government-financed health coverage to an estimated 45,000 low-income Montanans advanced Friday in the state Senate, as a bipartisan majority endorsed it on a 28-22 vote.
“These are our citizens, our neighbors, our friends ... who don’t have health care,” said Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, who supported Senate Bill 405. “These are our citizens of our state we’re standing up for in this bill.”
Seven Republicans joined all 21 Senate Democrats in supporting the bill, which could face a final vote in the Senate as soon as Saturday.
Its next destination would be the Montana House, where it will face stiff resistance from conservative Republicans and the House GOP leadership.
However, Republican co-sponsors of the bill in the House have said they hope to fashion the same Democratic-Republican coalition to pass the bill and send it to Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock for his signature.
Speaking to reporters Friday before the Senate vote, Bullock wouldn’t say whether he’d sign the measure in its current form.
Yet his office has been working on the bill with the sponsor, Republican Sen. Ed Buttrey of Great Falls, and Bullock said he’s promised from the start of the Legislature “to work with Democrats and Republicans to make sure that we don’t walk out of this session without bringing our taxpayer dollars home to cover 70,000 more Montanans.”
SB405 would expand Medicaid to cover adults earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, about $16,200 for a single person. Those eligible for the coverage must sign up and pay a premium of 2 percent of their annual income.
The bill also limits property and financial resources that new Medicaid recipients can own and offers voluntary work assessment and training programs for those on the program, to help them get a job or a better job and eventually leave the program.
The federal government would pay the entire cost of the expansion in 2016 and gradually reduce its share to 90 percent by 2020.
The Bullock administration has estimated that 45,000 people would sign up for Medicaid coverage under Buttrey’s bill over the next two years, but it has also estimated that 70,000 or more people may be eligible.
Friday’s Senate vote came after nearly two hours of debate, as opponents argued that expanding Medicaid will create a new, dependent class of people on welfare and be a financial drag on the state for years to come.
“This is permanent,” said Sen. Eric Moore, R-Miles City. “There is no backing up from this. ... Social welfare programs in this country have never gone backward. All we can do is limit the growth.
“Let’s not do this. ... I would urge you to think about the future and vote `no.’ ”
“How much longer can we afford to be a socialistic, welfare-type state?” asked Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey. “There will be nobody left to pay taxes anymore.”
Senate Majority Leader Matt Rosendale, R-Glendive, also said the bill had been introduced late and “crafted ... by special interest groups, in the shadowy corners, where no one could see what was going on.”
Buttrey labeled Rosendale’s claim “laughable,” saying he’d been working on the plan for many months and had talked openly about its contents with Republicans and Democrats.
“This is fear stuff, folks,” he said. “We can ignore the plight of our poor. We can ignore the plight of those in poverty. And we can be afraid of everything and do nothing. I would ask you not to do that. ...
“I would ask you to vote for a plan that is all about Montanans helping Montanans and all about Montanans helping themselves.”