Health care debate heats up in Montana as U.S. Senate deliberates

Missoula-area seniors talked about their health-care needs at a round-table discussion with Gov. Steve Bullock last year, just as the healthcare debate began to heat back up. (Missoula Current)

More than 120 organizations across Montana, including several in Missoula, launched an ad campaign on Tuesday urging Sen. Steve Daines to reject any health care bill that would cut the state’s Medicaid program or result in the loss of coverage for an estimated 22 million Americans.

The ad, signed by the Missoula Food Bank, Consumer Direct Care Network and the Montana Hospital Association, among others, upped the pressure on Republican lawmakers who are looking to make good on a campaign pledge to undo Obamacare and craft a new health care bill.

But the coalition of Montana health care providers fears that current deliberations within the GOP, which stalled on Tuesday, will eliminate the state’s own efforts to expand Medicaid and potentially result in the loss of coverage for 75,000 Montanans.

“In its current form, the (Senate bill’s) massive cuts to Medicaid programs will further squeeze state budgets, most of which are already strained,” Kelly Jepson, the policy analyst for Consumer Direct said Tuesday. “Limited health care funding for states will force current beneficiaries to fight one another for dollars, forcing states to choose which people are more deserving of health care and which people are not.”

After the House passed the American Health Care Act in May, the Congressional Budget Office projected it would leave more than 20 million Americans uninsured and cut $800 billion from Medicaid over 10 years.

The Montana Healthcare Foundation also projected that the state would lose $4.8 billion in federal Medicaid support by 2026, putting pressure on the state budget and likely forcing deep cuts in benefits and other essential services.

The Senate released its own version of a health care bill last week, though it didn’t score much better in a review this week by the CBO. Daines said he was “digging into this legislation” and had not made a decision as to whether he would support it in its current form.

On Tuesday, five Senate Republicans pulled support from the bill.

“Montanans have made it clear in election after election – they want to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a health care system that provides more affordable choices, protects those with preexisting conditions and puts Medicaid on a sustainable path,” Daines said in a recent statement. “With your input, I’m going to carefully scrutinize this proposal to determine if it secures these outcomes for Montanans.”

Sen. Jon Tester, however, said the GOP measure was crafted in secrete backroom meetings among 13 Republican senators. Among other concerns, Tester said the measure could hurt veterans across the state.

“This plan, written in secrete, will devastate thousands of elderly, disabled and rural Montana veterans who go outside the VA for all or some of their health care,” Tester said Tuesday. “This plan guts Medicaid, which provides life-saving treatment, mental health care and access to health care providers.”

Both Tester and Daines have scheduled town hall meetings this week to focus on health care.

Since Montana passed Medicaid expansion, the state’s rate of uninsured dropped to nearly 7 percent last year – down from 20 percent in 2012, according to the Montana Commissioner of Securities and Insurance.

The Montana chapter of the National Alliance of Mental Illness believes the efforts have moved the state in the right direction, though any cuts to Medicaid could set it back.

“We have seen Montana’s uninsured rate fall significantly since passage of Medicaid expansion,” said Matt Kuntz of NAMI. “Thousands of Montanans now have access to ongoing and mental health and addiction treatment for the first time ever. We can’t afford to go backwards.”

But at least one prominent group has stepped forward urging Daines and Tester to support the Senate’s version of the health care bill.

On Tuesday, Riley Johnson, the state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses called Obamacare a “massive impediment to growth” and said senators are facing a crucial moment.

“The Senate bill provides massive tax relief by eliminating or delaying 11 of the most burdensome Obamacare taxes, which are crushing small businesses and driving up costs,” said Johnson. “It also eliminates the punishing mandate penalties that discourage job creation, expansion, and investment.”