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Montana Senate narrowly revives, endorses Medicaid-expansion bill

Posted at 2:15 PM, Apr 15, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-15 23:20:25-04

HELENA — The Montana Senate on Monday narrowly revived and then advanced the bill to continue the state’s $700 million-a-year Medicaid expansion program, breathing life back into one of the key measures before the 2019 Legislature.

The Senate voted 26-24 to endorse House Bill 658, several hours after an identical vote on the Senate floor broke a four-day deadlock that had stalled the measure since last Thursday.

HB658, which continues the program that provides government-funded medical coverage to 96,000 low-income adults in Montana, goes to a final Senate vote on Tuesday. If the bill clears that hurdle, it goes back to the House for final votes before possibly heading to Gov. Steve Bullock for his signature.

“We have done what people asked us to do, which is not raise their taxes to pay for this program,” said Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte. “We’ve made it the best policy that we could. … I would ask for a do-pass today, because people are counting on us.”

Medicaid expansion is set to expire June 30 unless the Legislature votes to reauthorize it. HB658 would continue the program past that deadline and add some additional eligibility requirements for the three-year-old program.

The House approved the bill last month, but the Senate deadlocked on the measure last Thursday, 25-25, as several members said they were holding the bill hostage until they got assurance that the Legislature and Bullock will accept a bill helping NorthWestern Energy buy part of the Colstrip 4 power plant and a related high-voltage power line.

The Colstrip bill advanced in the Montana House on Monday, but it was unclear whether its fate still is tied to Medicaid expansion. Several Republican senators who supported the Colstrip bill still voted “no” on the Medicaid measure on Monday.

Six Republicans joined all 20 Senate Democrats to advance HB658 on Monday. Two of them — Sens. Bruce Gillespie of Ethridge and Russ Tempel of Chester — had voted “no” on HB658 last Friday and Saturday when attempts to revived the bill failed.

Supporters of HB658 also feared that if it didn’t advance on Monday, it might die — for any further delay would have caused the bill to miss a crucial legislative deadline. If the bill went without a preliminary vote Monday, it would have needed a super-majority vote to clear the House — a hurdle it likely couldn’t clear.

Senate opponents argued Monday that a vote for HB658 was going against the will of Montana voters, who last November rejected a ballot measure to continue Medicaid expansion and help fund it with higher state tobacco taxes.

“I think they voted because it was a tax, because it’s socialized medicine, because it incentivizes people to not work and to be in the poverty level, so that they can get a benefit for remaining under the poverty line,” said Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls. “The voters of Montana said no, and here we are, some of us, thinking we know better.“

Opponents also have criticized the program for spending money the federal government doesn’t have. The federal government pays 90 percent of the program costs, and Montana hospitals are paying a new tax to support most of the state’s share of the costs.

Supporters said Montana accepts federal money for all sorts of programs, and that Medicaid expansion should be no different — and that it helps the economy, the Montana people who need coverage, and smaller, rural hospitals.

“What’s the first thing people look for, when they look for a place to live?” asked Sen. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan. “They look for housing, etc., and then they look where is it in relation to schools, and hospitals. So we lose our smaller hospitals, that’s going to make a big difference in how we look at things and how people look when they’re looking for a place to live and a job.”