Posted: Jun 26, 2013 9:25 PM by Marnee Banks - MTN News
HELENA - Montana voters could be deciding the fate of a highly controversial healthcare policy.
On Wednesday, political groups launched a ballot initiative to try and expand Medicaid in Montana.
Montana Human Rights Network organizer Kim Abbott says because of the Legislature's "significant failure" to provide healthcare to those who need it, they have to take this issue to the voters.
"We understand that there is another way to make public policy in this state and that's on the ballot," Abbott said.
The ballot language isn't drafted yet, but organizers say it will be simple and expand Medicaid eligibility to people earning less than 138% of the federal poverty level. That means a family of four making $32,000 per year would qualify for the program; right now the cap sits at $8,000.
"A lot of them live in pain, a lot of the go without necessary healthcare, simply because they can't afford it and health insurance is financially out of reach for them," Abbott explains.
MT State Senator Fred Thomas (R-Stevensville) sits on the Public Health Committee and says this campaign is "short-sighted and dangerous."
"Down the road there is a huge cost that comes with this expansion of Obamacare in Montana," Thomas said in an interview. "It is totally unfunded."
Thomas points out that if voters pass the initiative, the Legislature is still the only body which can appropriate money.
According to legislative estimates, expanding Medicaid would cost the state $40 million over the next four years; the federal government's cost would be $2.1 billion over that same time period.
"How do you pay for this?" Thomas asked. "In order to come up with the money we would need to cut schools. We would need to cut other welfare benefit programs."
Thomas says cutting those things would be highly unpopular and he just doesn't see how Montana can afford it.
But the groups fighting for expansion say it's a great investment and will provide much needed healthcare to a vulnerable population.
"We all know our communities are stronger when people are healthier and able to work, contribute and participate," Abbott explains.
She expects there will be a lot of grassroots support for the campaign as well as financial support to get the word out.
One Republican insider says it won't be hard to raise money to fight this ballot issue. He said when they are talking about "Obamacare" and "increased federal spending," Montanans won't easily buy into the idea.
Both sides believe this issue could generate millions of dollars in support and opposition and could easily become the most publicized ballot issue in 2014.