Committee tables Medicaid expansion; Senate transfers bill to friendlier committee

(KPAX) Republicans on a Senate committee voted Friday morning to table the bill that would continue Montana’s $700 million-a-year Medicaid expansion coverage for low-income adults — but the measure isn’t dead.

Later Friday, the full Senate transferred the bill to a friendlier committee, and the Republican senator who moved to table the bill — Jason Small of Busby — said he supports the measure and plans to carry it on the Senate floor.

Small told MTN News that he asked the Senate Public Health Committee to table the measure, because he didn’t want any unwanted amendments attached to the bill or any other actions that could hinder its progress.

The Senate transferred House Bill 658 to the Senate Finance and Claims Committee, which plans to hold another hearing on the bill Monday.

HB658, which was approved by the House on a 61-37 vote last week, appears to have the votes in the Senate to proceed and eventually arrive at Gov. Steve Bullock’s desk for his signature. Bullock has indicated that he’ll sign it.

HB658 continues Medicaid expansion past a June 30 expiration date. It also adds new eligibility requirements for some participants in the program, such as performing 80 hours a week of “community engagement,” which could be a job, volunteer work, or drug-treatment program.

Medicaid expansion currently provides health coverage to about 95,000 low-income adults in Montana. The federal government pay 90 percent of the program’s costs, but the program must be authorized by the state Legislature.

HB658 had its first Senate hearing Friday morning, before the Senate Public Health Committee.

Scores of supporters showed up to testify for the bill, saying Medicaid expansion had extended health care to thousands of people who couldn’t afford it, allowed people to get early, preventative care and added jobs in the state.

“A doctor who cares for cancer patients spoke on a panel about a year ago and he said, `I will always see these people — but now, thanks to Medicaid expansion, I’m seeing them when I can do good,’” said Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena.

But Republican members of the panel peppered the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, with tough questions, including why the Legislature should extend the program when Montana voters rejected a ballot measure last year that would have done the same.

“Can you help me, or help the committee with some sort of constitutional reasoning that will help us justify voting against the will of the people on this issue?” asked Sen. Al Olszewski, R-Kalispell.

Buttrey said he voted against the ballot measure, too, because it included tobacco-tax increases, but that he still supported Medicaid expansion, and thought that most Montanans did, too.

“I don’t know how better to answer that, other than that we have seen great support in recent polls for Medicaid expansion,” he said.

Shortly after the hearing completed, the panel prepared to vote on the bill — and Small immediately moved to table it. He and all five other Republicans on the committee voted to table HB658, while all four Democrats voted against the motion.