HELENA — U.S. Senate candidate John Bohlinger stepped into the health-care fray Wednesday, saying Gov. Steve Bullock should call a special session of the Legislature to expand Medicaid to cover 70,000 low-income Montanans without health insurance.
“I think this is a crisis and this is something that has to be dealt with,” Bohlinger told reporters at a news conference at his Helena home. “I say let’s bring the legislative assembly together to deal with the problem now.”
Neither the Democratic governor nor a top Republican lawmaker expressed any enthusiasm for the idea.
House Majority Leader Gordon Vance, R-Bozeman, said Republicans have no interest in reversing their decision in April to reject Medicaid expansion for Montana — and that he didn’t believe Democrats really wanted to talk about it, either.
The governor’s deputy chief of staff, Kevin O’Brien, said that if Bohlinger is serious about the issue, he would have talked to Bullock about it previously.
“Mr. Bohlinger is a dedicated public servant, but I’m disappointed that rather than engaging in a serious discussion, he’s looking for an easy headline on a complicated issue,” O’Brien said.
Bullock, who proposed expanding Medicaid this year, has said in recent weeks that he sees no point in calling a special session, because the Republican majority in the Legislature is likely to reject it again.
Vance agreed Wednesday.
“The word that I have gotten is that not only is there no desire on Republicans’ part, (but) that Democrats don’t even want to have (a special session) now, with all of the problems with Obamacare.”
Bohlinger, running as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate, said the issue of Medicaid expansion is too important to wait until the 2015 Legislature.
Thousands of low-income Montanans are unable to get health-care coverage that will be required next year, either because they’ve had difficult using the new online Obamacare marketplace or because they’re too poor to get any assistance, he said.
“I have to be elected before I can address this concern, but this is a problem that exists today in Montana,” Bohlinger said. “It’s far too great an issue to put it on the back burner and let it just cook.”
Under the Affordable Care Act, the federal government will fund most of the cost for states that expand Medicaid coverage for all citizens earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line.
Bohlinger, Montana’s lieutenant governor from 2005-2012, is running for the U.S. Senate seat held by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who is retiring next year. He previously served in the Montana Senate and House as a Republican legislator.
Also running for the seat are Democrats Dirk Adams, a Wilsall rancher, and Lt. Gov. John Walsh, and Republicans U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, state Rep. Champ Edmunds of Missoula, and David Leaser, an air traffic manager from Kalispell.
Bohlinger also said the Legislature should allow Montanans to buy into the state employee health plan “at cost,” as another option to get health coverage. Bohlinger said he didn’t know how much it would cost for someone to join the plan.
Russ Hill, administrator of the state Health Care and Benefits Division, said the cost of insuring a single person on the current plan is about $8,600 a year. However, adding new non-employees would change the pool’s risk calculations, so the new cost would be different, he said.