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Many Montanans uninsured

HELENA - A health care crisis is heading toward Montana if something isn't done about the skyrocketing insurance costs that are forcing people to go without coverage, advocates say.

"They need to nail it down and find a way to do it," says Don Allen, Montana Medical Benefit Plan spokesman, about the need for lawmakers and policy-makers to get a handle on the state's ever-increasing health insurance costs.

Before now, the state focused on expanding access to insurance programs. But these efforts aren't increasing the number of insured Montanans.

Last month, the state Health Care Advisory Council met to critique a proposal drawn up by Montana advocates and the Alpha Center, a nonprofit state policy organization based in Washington, D.C. The plan outlined strategies to expand existing programs and enact insurance market reforms.

Council members, lobbyists and insurance companies all agreed these strategies once again miss the point by focusing on access instead of cost containment.

Nearly one in five Montanans didn't have health insurance in 1998, says the U.S. Census Bureau. Only five other states have a higher rate of uninsured than Montana.

"Frankly it's getting pretty scary," says Chuck Butler, Montana Blue Cross Blue Shield vice president of governmental affairs.

The advisory council decided to open up the discussion and give people several weeks to comment on the proposed strategies, many of which would need legislative action during the 2001 session.

Most people involved agree the discussion is good because nobody seems to know where to start when it comes to getting insurance costs under control.

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