House panel considers Republican bill for limited Medicaid expansion in Montana



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HELENA, Montana — Lawmakers are considering a bill that would use a combination of state and federal money to expand Medicaid to about 10,000 Montanans.

Republican Rep. Nancy Ballance of Hamilton brought House Bill 455 before the House Human Services Committee on Wednesday.

Although it had been touted as an alternative to Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock's proposal to expand Medicaid to about 70,000 low-income Montanans, Ballance told lawmakers her bill has nothing to do with it.

"These people are being held hostage so you can get an all-or-nothing plan," she said. "These people have been left behind. They deserve to be covered."

Those covered in her bill would include some veterans as well as low-income parents who don't qualify for Medicaid or for subsidies on the federal health insurance exchange. The measure would also include funding to help about 800 disabled people who qualify for services but are on long waiting lists get care.

Ballance also told lawmakers her bill is a backup plan that should have been put in place in 2013 when the first full expansion proposal was shot down by the Republican-led Legislature.

About 20 people spoke in opposition to the bill, saying it spends state money to cover a select few instead of accepting federal money to cover far more low-income people.

"HB 455 is not responsible for the people of Montana," said Tara Veazey, the governor's health and family policy adviser, adding that under the bill, Montanans without children wouldn't be eligible at all, regardless of income level.

Lisa Daniels of Stevensville has no children and would not be eligible for Medicaid under House Bill 455. But she would be eligible under House Bill 249, the governor's bill being carried by Rep. Pat Noonan of Ramsay.

Williams said through tears that she has drained her savings account and can no longer afford health insurance after moving in with her 82-year-old ailing mother and disabled sister to take care of them.

"It's very stressful for me that I don't have health insurance," Daniels said. "House Bill 455 doesn't help someone like me. I just need some temporary help."

John Woodland, chairman of the Mineral Community Hospital board of directors, said their hospital is in financial trouble because of about $600,000 in uncompensated care it must deal with each year. He said this bill wouldn't be of much help in that regard and accepting full Medicaid expansion would lessen the financial burden in treating the uninsured.

"Without those Medicaid dollars_that funding coming in_we run the risk of losing that hospital," Woodland said.

About five people spoke in support of the measure, although several said they would support any measure to expand Medicaid.

Wally Melcher with the Montana Association of Community Disability Services said he supports the bill because it helps address disabled people waiting for services, often, he said, for up to 10 years.

"We find this unconscionable," he said. "We support any action that supports people on these waiting lists."

Ballance said the governor's bill doesn't address the disabled. The committee didn't take immediate action on her bill.

The hearing on House Bill 249 is set for March 6 in the House Human Services Committee.

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