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For 16 years from 1984 to 2000, I was the executive director of Parents, Let’s Unite for Kids (PLUK) where I worked with families who had children with disabilities. During that time, I became well-acquainted with the legal process of medical bankruptcy. The families I served came from all walks of life and income levels, but nothing prepared them for the cost of heart surgeries, transplants, or cancer treatments for their children.

One family in particular I’ll never forget.

The father was a physician and the mother a nurse. They sold their Montana home at a loss, left their jobs, and moved to Minnesota so that they could get very expensive, specialized care for their infant son. Still, the bills piled up and ultimately, they were forced to declare bankruptcy in two states — a financial nightmare as they also endured the emotional turmoil of their son struggling to survive.

Ten years ago, massive health care bills were one of the main reasons people filed for personal bankruptcy. A Harvard study published in the American Journal of Medicine showed that more than 60 percent of all bankruptcies in 2007 were medical; 92 percent of these medical debtors had medical debts over $5,000. Most medical debtors were well educated, owned homes and had middle-class occupations. Three quarters had health insurance.

Thankfully in the years after passage of the Affordable Care Act, fewer people have been going bankrupt, and today in Montana, this family and others like them would qualify for Medicaid to help them pay for unusually high medical bills. Since we in the Montana Legislature passed Medicaid expansion in 2010, more than 91,000 children, pregnant women, seniors and other working Montanans have access to affordable health care. Fewer families are one disease away from losing their homes or livelihoods.

In our next legislative session in 2019, Montana’s Medicaid expansion must be reauthorized. We need leaders who will fight relentlessly for that goal or we risk losing the progress we have made toward ensuring that all Montanans receive the care they deserve.

The families I knew in 1980s and '90s never expected that they would go bankrupt. They worked hard, paid their bills, and saved for retirement. But all that financial security went by the wayside when their children needed expensive medical care.

Montanans believe in families, and we believe in helping our neighbors when they are in need. Next year, I will fight my heart out to reauthorize our state’s Medicaid expansion because supporting Medicaid is one of the ways we can support families in times of medical crisis — something that can happen to anyone, no matter what their status in life.

Kathy Kelker, D-Billings, represents House District 47.

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