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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Saturday Session Only Ratchets Up Tension On Medicaid Expansion Bill

Montana State Senate
Corin Cates-Carney
Montana Public Radio

The Montana Legislature is running out of time to pass a bill to reauthorize Medicaid expansion before a deadline early this week.

The window for the Medicaid expansion bill to pass out of the Senate closes Tuesday.

On Saturday, Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, a Democrat from Butte, attempted to bring that bill, HB 658, up for a debate on the Senate floor.

“This might be our last opportunity to try to revive what I consider a very important bill for the session, Medicaid expansion," Sesso said.

Four Republicans joined Democrats voting in favor of Sesso’s motion, but it failed 24-26. House Bill 658 would continue Medicaid expansion in the state past its current expiration, July 1. It would also establish new work and public service requirements for certain enrollees.

Around 96,000 people currently have health coverage through the state’s expansion program.

Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, a Republican from Stevensville, says lawmakers need more time to review the projected costs of the new expansion policy.

“I still have members that are working on the fiscal note and I pointed out yesterday, this is the largest fiscal note in the history of the state, other than House Bill 2, General Fund," Thomas said.

In the past, Thomas and other Republican leadership have said they oppose the Medicaid expansion bill, calling new requirements for enrollees “weak.”

Following a Senate floor session Saturday, Thomas said he did not believe the Medicaid expansion bill is in jeopardy of failing by running up so close to Tuesday’s deadline.

“Rules can be changed, suspended," he said. "Important bills, whether they be for the economy or whatever can be brought back to life.”

But Minority Leader Sesso says he does not want to face a situation where a supermajority of lawmakers would have to vote in favor of changing those rules.

He says he plans to try again to revive, and pass, the Medicaid expansion bill Monday.

“That’s our earnest hope that the time will have run out and the senators that are supportive of Medicaid will have had sufficient time to make the progress on their review of the fiscal note, as Senator Thomas points out, or proceed with the other legislation that they wanted to get moving along," Sesso said, "and then Monday will be the day.”

Stalling the health care program for low income adults in the Montana Senate has become a tool for leverage on other policy moving in the Legislature. A handful of Republicans are using their support for Medicaid expansion as a bargaining chip for a bill that could impact the future ownership of the coal-fired power plant in Colstrip.

Other Republicans say different policies could also come into play as the 2019 legislative session enters its final days.

In a statement Saturday, Governor Steve Bullock accused Republicans of "playing Russian roulette with the healthcare of nearly 10% of Montana’s population.”

The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn by May 1.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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