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HELENA – Gov. Steve Bullock on Monday rolled out his administration’s bill to accept federal money to provide health coverage for 70,000 low-income Montanans, saying it’s time to give the proposal “an up-or-down vote.”

Bullock, a Democrat, said he’s “willing to work with anyone” to get the bill passed – but made it clear he won’t back away from accepting the millions of dollars in federal money to expand Medicaid to all citizens earning less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level.

“Extending health coverage to our friends, our families and our neighbors is too important to fall victim to partisan political games,” he said.

A group of Republican lawmakers is working on an alternative proposal to expand Medicaid, but that plan would not accept federal money authorized by the 2010 Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare.”

Instead, it would limit the expanded health coverage to low-income parents, the disabled and some military veterans.

Bullock’s proposal is contained in House Bill 249, which was introduced Monday by Rep. Pat Noonan, D-Ramsay. Bullock, Noonan and several supporters, including a hospital CEO from Cut Bank and a nurse from Havre, spoke about the measure at a packed news conference in the Capitol.

“This session, we as a state and legislative body have the obligation to extend health coverage to hardworking Montanans,” Noonan said. “The last Legislature chose not to bring our tax dollars home. ... That cannot happen again.”

The 2013 Legislature, controlled by Republicans, rejected expansion of Medicaid to cover an estimated 70,000 Montanans.

Once again, Medicaid expansion will be one of the most hotly contested issues at the Legislature.

A majority of Republicans, who again control the Legislature, oppose the expansion, saying it further adopts the Affordable Care Act and is an unnecessary, costly expansion of a welfare program.

However, Democrats are hoping a handful of Republicans may join them to pass some form of Medicaid expansion – which nearly happened two years ago.

HB249 accepts the federal money, but directs the state to hire a private company to administer claims filed by the people covered by the Medicaid expansion. Anyone earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level – $16,100 for a single person – would be eligible for coverage.

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The bill also says the state will promote reforms in health care delivery for the newly covered people, such as “coordinated care” that focuses on prevention and reduces emergency care.

When asked if he was ready to compromise with Republicans to get a Medicaid plan approved by the Legislature, Bullock said he would “work with anyone.” However, he said he doesn’t see much to like in the GOP’s counterproposal.

“The idea that we’re just not going to accept federal dollars, or we’re going to cover a whole heck of a lot less (people) ... it’s not a proposal, it’s a deflection,” he said.

Sen. Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, one of the architects of the GOP plan, called it an “excellent compromise that keeps Medicaid dedicated to society’s most vulnerable.”

“The governor can be for building government all he wants,” Thomas said. “(Our plan) is not just spending more government money. We’re drilling down on issues and trying to address problems best we can.”

The GOP plan would spend more federal funds, but not those tied to the Affordable Care Act. It also would increase state spending, but Thomas said that money would be offset by savings by cracking down on fraud, among other things.

The governor’s office had no precise figures Monday on what his plan might cost, or save, the state.

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