At least 15 Montana lawmakers had lunch last week with a few dozen constituents in Billings. The lawmakers still made it to their 1 p.m. meetings at the Helena Capitol.
The first teleconference forum of the 2013 session drew comments on subjects ranging from gun rights to voting rights. But a small business health insurance program accounted for the most Billings speakers.
Several small business owners voiced concerns about Insure Montana being eliminated starting Jan. 1, 2014.
“As a small business, it’s really hard to attract employees and one of their first questions is “do you have insurance,” one business owner said.
A Laurel business owner told lawmakers that her employees wouldn’t be able to afford insurance without Insure Montana. For example, one employee pays a premium of $670 a month to cover himself, his wife and baby. Insure Montana reimburses him $450.
Insure Montana helps make health insurance affordable for businesses with fewer than 10 employees. Participating businesses can choose either a tax credit to defray their costs of providing employee insurance or a premium subsidy for the employees. About 1,500 small Montana businesses participate in the program, and more are on a waiting list, according to Monica Lindeen, state insurance commissioner.
The executive budget submitted by Gov. Brian Schweitzer eliminates Insure Montana on Jan 1, 2014, when the new federal health insurance exchange is supposed to be available for Montanans to shop for individual and small group insurance.
However, for many very small Montana businesses, Insure Montana offers a better deal. Moreover, federal health care reform was aimed at covering the uninsured. The 8,000 people already covered by Insure Montana ought to be able to keep their insurance.
Insure Montana is one of several state health programs funded by tobacco tax money.
The state insurance office has been in communication with Gov. Steve Bullock’s staff about saving Insure Montana, according Lucas Hamilton, spokesman for Lindeen. Lindeen also will make the case for Insure Montana when she presents her office budget to the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on General Government on Jan. 29.
Insure Montana has succeeded in keeping administrative costs to 6 percent and negotiating lower-than-average annual rate increases for participants.
Now that the program’s fate is before the Legislature, we ask lawmakers to give these small businesses -- which have been responsible and proactive in providing employee health coverage -- the certainty that they can keep this coverage for 2 1/2 more years. Save Insure Montana.