Halfway through it 90-day session, the Montana Legislature has partisan differences on major issues and its biggest decisions lie ahead. Yet Republicans and Democrats came together to give peace of mind to 8,000 Montanans who use Insure Montana.
This popular, but limited, program provides insurance premium subsidies or tax credits for small Montana businesses that offer employees private health coverage. To participate in Insure Montana, a business must have fewer than 10 employees. About 1,500 businesses participate, covering about 8,000 people. More are on a waiting list, according to Monica Lindeen, state insurance commissioner.
Lindeen went to bat for Insure Montana when the the program's funding was zeroed out in former Gov. Brian Schweitzer's budget that anticipated these businesses switching to the promised new federal insurance shopping exchange.
However, small-business owners in Billings, Helena and elsewhere spoke up for Insure Montana, a program they know and like and want to keep. It makes no sense in this time of transition in health care to force 8,000 people who already have coverage to go out into a market still under construction.
For some small businesses, Insure Montana offers a better deal than the subsidies promised by the planned exchange for individual and small-group policies. Furthermore, Insure Montana has succeeded in holding administrative costs to 6 percent and keeping rate increases below average.
Funding was the big issue. Insure Montana has been funded from cigarette tax money, as have some other state health programs. That funding stream won't sustain all the programs into the future because fewer people are buying cigarettes.
Working with Gov. Steve Bullock, Lindeen offered to use $6 million from license fees paid by insurance companies. Bullock's budget staff identified general fund and tobacco tax money to cover the rest of the $18.5 million two-year budget for Insure Montana.
Importantly, Republican legislative leadership was involved in the deal. Majority Leader Gordon Vance of Bozeman said: "We intend to move forward and fully fund this program for the next biennium."
A joint appropriations subcommittee has included the Insure Montana deal in its budget recommendation. We urge lawmakers to accept that recommendation. Sustaining Insure Montana is a win for small businesses and a win for Montana's health.