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HELENA — If the Legislature really wants to solve Montana’s mental health care crisis, a simple solution exists, a Democratic state senator said Thursday: expand Medicaid.

Sen. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, said she’s glad that majority Republicans are supporting expansion of local mental health treatment programs, to keep people out of the more-expensive State Hospital.

But if the state expanded Medicaid coverage, poor people would have easy access to mental health counseling and other early options, rather than waiting for a crisis that requires state-funded treatment, she said.

“People shouldn’t have to go into crisis to get the attention of our society,” she said. “If you don’t have an insurance card, finding a counselor is nearly impossible.”

Caferro, legislative Democrats and Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, support accepting federal dollars to expand Medicaid to cover everyone earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or $16,100 for a single person.

The expansion needs legislative approval, and most Republicans in the Legislature oppose it.

Caferro said funding local programs is fine, but that the money is usually distributed through grants, creating a “patchwork” system where one county may have programs and another does not.

Medicaid expansion would cover 70,000 poor people, who could then use mental health services anywhere in the state, she said: “Medicaid expansion is the answer to this problem.”

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