Expanding Medicaid rolls would likely create thousands of jobs in the Billings area, but would also cost taxpayers millions, a University of Montana health care economist said in Billings Thursday.
Bryce Ward told business and health care leaders at the Crowne Plaza that allowing about 40,000 low-income residents to join the state’s insurance pool would raise demand for service and create about 14,000 jobs statewide, as many as 3,000 in Billings.
The expansion would cost taxpayers about $34 million through 2021, an issue that legislators will likely tackle next year, Ward said.
“That’s the decision at the margins we face. That’s the calculus,” said Ward, associate director of UM’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research.
Ward spoke during the first Big Sky Health Care Summit, a two-day gathering of health-care and business professionals.
Business leaders are hoping to jumpstart the conversation on the business of health care, Montana’s fastest-growing industry and a major Yellowstone County employer.
“It’s growing really, really fast. Faster than the economy,” Ward said.
Other speakers Thursday discussed health care savings for business from ergonomics and mental health programs, health care education and the future of health care nationwide.
As a regional hub, Billings' overall growth is driving health care expansion, but it’s also a nationwide trend. Hospitals are becoming more technologically sophisticated and employees are needed for new specialized jobs. The 2010 Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, also is prompting change in the industry, particularly in state-run Medicaid.
Under the new federal law, states have the option to expand Medicaid to everyone earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. The federal government would pay for most of the added costs through 2020 before handing it over to the state.
The option became a political football in Montana, with a majority of Republican state lawmakers blocking attempts to accept the federal dollars for the Medicaid increase during the 2014 legislative session. Health care and business groups then wrote an initiative to force the state to accept the Medicaid expansion, but it died last month for lack of signatures.
The matter will likely come before the Legislature again next year.
In Billings, Ward noted that these types of issues have amped up the focus on health care.
“It’s an exciting time to be a health care economist, because we’re trying so many things,” Ward said. “Our lives are worth a lot to us. Our quality of life is worth a lot to us.”