All over Montana this week, people were peering outside and breathing a sigh of relief. The sun is out, the temperature is above freezing, the snow is melting. Early signs of spring are appearing. Many of us are beginning to think ahead to spring and summer – the hiking and camping, rafting and floating, road trips and barbeques. But for some Montanans, while the weather is improving, they are still living day-to-day without access to healthcare.
Take Janet. Janet’s health care plan is, as she says, to hope she doesn’t get sick. She won’t be rafting or biking or travelling this summer because she can’t afford the possibility of an accident. Janet works two part-time jobs but isn’t offered health insurance by either job. Her combined income isn’t enough to purchase private insurance, even with the new subsidies offered by the Affordable Care Act, and she currently makes too much to qualify for Medicaid. So she walks carefully when it’s icy, drives slowly, takes her vitamins, and hopes for the best. This is no way to live.
The fact is, it doesn’t have to be this way. Montana is now in the minority of states that has not yet expanded our Medicaid program. Medicaid expansion is an opportunity to accept federal funds to provide 70,000 Montanans – including single parents, veterans, and working families - with quality, affordable health coverage.
So what do we know about Medicaid and Medicaid expansion?
Medicaid is good insurance. The program is run in the state, by Montanans and for Montanans. 90% of Montana providers accept Medicaid – that’s 15,000 doctors, hospitals, and clinics across the state.
Medicaid expansion is important for our small towns and rural hospitals. Having access to health care close to home is something that many people take for granted. But people in small towns and rural communities often have long drives to reach the nearest provider. Losing the rural hospitals and clinics we have now would only make this burden greater. Medicaid expansion benefits these small town clinics by reducing uncompensated care and bringing in new resources and jobs.
In addition, Medicaid expansion is important to the people who make Montana great. Veterans, American Indians, farmers and ranchers, and home health care workers would all benefit from expansion. Right now, Montana has one of the highest rates of uninsured veterans in the country, and many people working in the service and tourism industries also go uninsured. We think our neighbors deserve access to health care, whether they are restaurant workers, ranch hands, raft guides, or single moms. Uninsured folks are more likely wait to see a doctor when they find a lump, avoid an oncologist because they can’t afford cancer meds, or just neglect basic preventative care. Not only does waiting jeopardize their lives, but it drives up health care costs by increasing the likelihood of more expensive, catastrophic and uncompensated care.
Finally, we know that the majority of Montanans support Medicaid expansion. Business leaders, hospital and provider representatives, faith leaders, and low-income advocates alike have come out in support of expanding our Medicaid program.
So what’s stopping us? Good question. The majority of opposition to Medicaid expansion comes from a small group of extremist legislators who have stood in the way of Medicaid expansion over the last year. Despite efforts to craft a bipartisan compromise, these obstructionist legislators carefully and continually manufactured objections to progress at every turn.
But the stakes are too high to give up now. Real people’s lives are on the line. That’s why a coalition of community leaders and organizations have continued to work toward a solution. We believe it is our responsibility as a state and as a nation to take care of our neighbors and community members, especially those most vulnerable and those going without. Access to health care is not a privilege or meant only for those that can afford it. We have the means, the opportunity, and the values to provide health care to thousands of Montanans – we cannot let a lack of political will stand in our way.
This spring, as you are out and about, you may encounter volunteers with clipboards, asking you to sign the Healthy Montana Initiative petition to put Medicaid expansion on the ballot in November. When you’re considering whether to sign, think about what we know about Medicaid expansion: it’s a good deal for Montana. It provides life-saving health coverage for our low-income neighbors. And it helps keep Montana the state we know and love.
I’m Sarah Howell with Montana Women Vote. Thanks for listening, and have a terrific weekend.