HELENA – Amidst charges of “political shenanigans” and arguments over rules, Republicans on a House committee Friday night voted to kill Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s proposal to expand Medicaid coverage for up to 70,000 poor Montanans.
The party-line vote by the House Human Services Committee came after a marathon, six-hour hearing on the proposal, attended by scores of supporters who traveled from across the state to advocate for the measure.
The panel voted 10-7 to send House Bill 249 to the House floor next week with a “do not pass” recommendation, which takes three-fifths of the House to overturn and allow the full House to consider the bill.
Republicans hold a 59-41 majority in the House, meaning at least 19 Republicans would have to join all 41 Democrats to allow the bill to advance further. Democrats have acknowledged they probably don’t have the votes to muster the needed 60-vote majority.
Democrats on the panel objected to the do-not-pass motion, saying it violates the state constitution by forcing a super-majority vote by the House to consider the bill.
But Rep. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, who chairs the committee, overruled the objections – although he indicated he expects a fight next week in the House over interpretation of the rules.
HB249 also isn’t the only Medicaid proposal before the 2015 Legislature, which likely will be battling over the issue until its final days in late April.
Wittich said Democrats had forced Republicans into the position of using the do-not-pass recommendation, because rule changes negotiated by Democrats earlier in the session make it the only way Republicans opposed to the expansion can require 60 votes to bring it to the floor.
That comment brought a rebuke from Rep. Ellie Hill, D-Missoula, who said Republicans are the ones choosing to require a super-majority of the full House to consider the bill.
“You’ve done that, at everyone in this room’s understanding, to play political shenanigans and partisan politics to prevent this from proceeding to the (full House), where I think we all know it has majority support,” she said. “You’re the ones here playing shenanigans with the bill.”
The vote shortly before 10 p.m. followed more than six hours of testimony and questioning on HB249, which contained Bullock’s proposal to expand Medicaid coverage to people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $16,200 for a single person.
Physicians, hospital executives, business owners, veterans and average citizens lined up to support the measure, urging committee members to set aside political ideology and approve the bill, which would accept federal dollars to expand Medicaid coverage for the poor without health insurance.
“It’s more than (people) just slipping through the cracks,” said John Tremper, a physician from Kalispell. “These are people like you and me who have diseases that they have just acquired. … Things that they have no control over.
“These are people who want to be active citizens, but they can’t, because they feel trapped. I’m here to … get you to think about them.”
The overflow crowd filled the hearing room before the committee and three other rooms in the Capitol, where the proceedings were broadcast simultaneously.
The hearing also featured a dozen opponents, who argued the costs of the program would spiral out of control and force the state to spend millions on health care for the poor, instead of other needed programs.
They also said accepting the federal funding as part of the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” would further worsen the federal debt.
“It’s the only part of Obamacare that we as a state can reject and we urge you to reject it,” said Henry Kriegel of Americans for Prosperity-Montana, a free-market group.
HB249, sponsored by Rep. Pat Noonan, D-Ramsay, would accept about $700 million in federal money over the next two years to expand government coverage to eligible citizens.
Noonan told committee members that some see the bill as “federal overreach” and perhaps raising future taxes, while others see it as helping those in need.
He asked them to consider that HB249 would extend health care to everyday Montanans who can’t otherwise afford it, keeping them out of bankruptcy because of unexpected medical bills.
Mark Semmens, managing director of investment banking for D.A. Davidson & Co. in Great Falls, told the panel that he’s “mildly astonished” that the bill faces partisan opposition, because it’s the best economic-development bill the Legislature will consider.
“If you’re truly interested in economic and job development, pause and think of the benefits of bringing billions of dollars into the state,” he said. “Please, set aside politics, and show people you’re truly committed (to Montana).”
During the question-and-answer session, however, GOP members of the committee questioned whether expanding Medicaid would achieve all the goals touted by its supporters.
“If this bill passes, and Medicaid expansion occurs, will this be the panacea for rural hospitals?” asked Rep. Albert Olszewski, R-Kalispell. “Will they be sustainable and keep doors open for years to come?”
Bob Olsen, an executive with MHA, the lobby representing hospitals, said it won’t be the “total solution,” but would be a huge help to hospitals and other providers, and give them chances to reduce prices or provide other care.