Opponents of Medicaid expansion launch counter-attack

2013-03-12T19:39:00Z 2013-03-13T05:17:03Z Opponents of Medicaid expansion launch counter-attackBy MIKE DENNISON Gazette State Bureau The Billings Gazette
March 12, 2013 7:39 pm  • 

HELENA — Conservative opponents of expanding Medicaid coverage for poor Montanans have launched a public-relations counter-attack, including mailers criticizing the expansion as a plan to put more people on “government-controlled health plans.”

The mailers, sent to households in the Kalispell and Billings areas the past two weeks by the Montana Growth Network, say state lawmakers should “say no to Obamacare and the expansion of Medicaid.”

“Special interest lobbyists and big-government activists are plotting to go against the will of Montana voters and enact key provisions of Obamacare,” the mailer says.

Republican legislative leaders also have written op-ed pieces distributed to Montana daily newspapers, opposing the expansion, and Republican Sen. Jason Priest of Red Lodge — the treasurer of the Montana Growth Network — is introducing an alternative bill to postpone expansion for two years while the issue is studied by a legislative “select committee.”

“My select-committee bill is a much better idea than simply hodge-podging a bunch of half-baked ideas into a bucket and hoping it comes out well,” he said Tuesday, referring to expansion plans proposed by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.

The push-back from opponents of Medicaid expansion come just as Bullock prepares to unveil his own bill, which will be introduced Wednesday.

The expansion would extend government-funded health coverage to as many as 70,000 low-income Montanans, and would be financed almost entirely by the federal government for three years, starting in 2014.

The Bullock administration has estimated the expansion will bring $750 million of federal money into the state during the next two years and create thousands of new jobs.

House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, the sponsor of the bill, said Tuesday that he thinks many criticisms of Medicaid expansion are based on misinformation and falsehoods — and that it has wide support across Montana.

“From what I have seen, a huge spectrum of interests from hospitals to physicians to health clinics to small businesses, to AARP — you name it — any collective group of people who care about how government and health care are run, is voicing support for this,” he said. “The only people I hear who are opposed to this are Republican legislators.”

John Flink, vice president of MHA, the lobby group representing Montana’s hospitals, said he’s surprised at the strident tone of the counter-attack, as hospitals — which support the expansion — are labeled as monopolists and part of the “bloated medical-industrial complex.”

Senate President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, in a column he wrote last week in The Billings Gazette, compared the hospital lobby with Anaconda Copper Co. and the copper kings of the 20th century in Montana, suggesting the “copper collar” had been replaced with a “hospital collar.”

“The vilification of hospitals that has occurred in this session is unprecedented in my many years of working around the Legislature,” he said. “These kinds of attacks make it impossible to have the kind of debate that an issue of this importance deserves.”

Bullock’s expansion proposal can’t happen without approval by the Legislature, which is controlled by Republicans. So far, no Republican lawmaker has come out publicly in favor of the proposal.

Flink said hospitals and other supporters of the expansion “believe we need to move forward with some way of increasing the number of Montanans who have health insurance,” and want to revise and reform the system as expansion occurs, starting in 2014.

Opponents say the expansion will end up costing Montana taxpayers millions of dollars, and that the state shouldn’t start the plan without considering the risks more carefully.

Tyler Schott, executive director of the Montana Growth Network, said the group sent out several thousand mailers two weeks ago. The mailers say Montanans “rejected Obamacare at the ballot box,” referring to a vote in November 2012 supporting a referendum that says Montana won’t enforce the health insurance mandate required by the law.

The Growth Network’s members support free-market approaches to solving problems and oppose more government control, he said. The nonprofit group doesn’t publicly reveal its financial supporters.

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