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Medicaid Expansion Committee Shifts Focus To Workforce Training

Montana's Medicaid Expansion oversite committe wants more people enrolled in the workforce training program offered by the HELP Act.

More than 60,000 Montanans now have health insurance because of the HELP Act, the Medicaid expansion program narrowly passed by state lawmakers in 2015. The oversight committee in charge of reviewing that program met in Helena on Tuesday to check in on the Medicaid expansion. 

John Goodnow, chair of the oversight committee, says because of the HELP Act, a lot of uninsured Montanans now have coverage: 

"That’s amazing, that’s 6 percent of the population of the state."

Goodnow says with the success of enrolling Montanans into the program, the oversight committee needs to shift its focus.

"Well, we're still kinda getting our legs under us on the parts where we really want to help people improve their situation through job training and helping people get better jobs," Goodnow said.

When the HELP Act was created, it included a voluntary workforce training program. It’s designed to get new Medicaid enrollees job training, so  that eventually they no longer need Medicaid.

According to the Montana Department of Labor, in 2015, 30 percent of Medicaid recipients had a job all year;  most had two or more jobs. And the median wage for someone on Medicaid in Montana last year was $15,000.

The workforce training program, run through the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, helped sell the idea of Medicaid expansion to enough Republicans to get the HELP Act through the state legislature.

But while the job program is getting more enrollees to take the first step in training through an assessment survey, far fewer are actually getting through the program.

Senator Ed Buttrey, a Republican from Great Falls, sponsored the HELP Act. He says more people need to be completing the workforce training.

"We need to get a hold of these people, and to some degree harass them to take the assessment. And the fact that that number is going up, I think, is going to indicate good things down the road as far as when people take advantage of the training," Buttrey said.

The number of people completing the job training program has some lawmakers criticizing the HELP Act.

But Montana Department of Labor administrator Scott Eychner says the workforce training program has helped over 1,100 people.

"The results that we have seen to date are very much in line with other workforce programs. That’s not to say that it couldn’t be better. But in counter to people, some of the discussions about this is not an effective program, in terms of general  workforce program it has been effective."

During the committee meeting on Tuesday, Eychner outlined barriers new Medicaid enrollees have in participating in the workforce program — their current work schedule, poor physical health, not having transportation or a phone and housing situations, among other issues.

"We have about 28 so far that are active participants that have identified childcare as an issue," Eychner said. "There are more though that have completed the survey who are not coming in, and one of the things we have deduced from that is that we see childcare being a barrier to participation. It’s not just the people coming in that that’s one of their barriers to go to work, it’s also a barrier to get in the door."

The chair of the Medicaid expansion oversight committee charged the Department of Labor with creating a list of ways to get more people involved with the workforce training aspect of the HELP Act.

The oversight committee will meet again after the state legislative session wraps up in April.

Until then, the committee will keep an eye on what happens during the legislative session, where one Republican lawmaker has reserved space for bill draft to repeal the HELP Act.

Oversight committee Chair John Goodnow says he’ll also watch to see what happens when President-elect Donald Trump takes office.

"I don’t think it’s going to play out this way, but one of President-elect Trump's ongoing campaign promises was that he was going to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. The Affordable Care Act is the national legislation that authorized and funded Medicaid expansion at the state level. So, if in fact that happened, it could dramatically change the funding at the state level."

The federal government currently pays all of the cost of Montana’s Medicaid expansion. As the law stands now, the state will take on 10 percent of the cost in the coming years.

Corin Cates-Carney is the news director at Montana Public Radio. He joined MTPR in 2015 and is a graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism.
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