HELENA — The Republican majority in the state House Monday endorsed a bill that would study, rather than enact, a Montana expansion of Medicaid, the government health care program for the poor.

“This (bill) would form a group to look the next couple of years to decide what’s right for Montana,” said Rep. Cary Smith, R-Billings, the sponsor of House Bill 604. “I think this is something we need to take the time to look at.”

The House voted 54-46 to endorse Smith’s bill, which then was sent to the House Appropriations Committee for another hearing on Tuesday. All of the chamber’s 39 Democrats and seven Republicans voted against the measure.

HB604 would create a 12-member select committee to examine a variety of health care reforms and possible Medicaid expansion. It would report back to the 2015 Legislature.

Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, is proposing to expand Medicaid in Montana to cover 70,000 additional adults now without health insurance. The federal government would pay nearly all the costs from 2014 to 2016, and then reduce its share to 90 percent by 2020.

House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, said the time for studying the issue is past, and that Montana needs to act now to expand Medicaid and reform its health care system.

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“We’re way behind on what other states are doing to reform our health care system,” he said. “The things that are on this list (in HB604) to think about for two years, are things that other states have been doing for four years. … Let’s not talk about it. Let’s start.”

Rep. Pat Noonan, D-Ramsay, also noted that the committee would be appointed by Republican leaders of the House and Senate and would have a Republican majority.

“Why isn’t this bipartisan like other select committees that we have?” he said.

Some Republicans said the study doesn’t necessarily have to be a substitute for Medicaid expansion and could exist alongside it, if the expansion is approved.

Yet others made it clear they view HB604 as an alternative to the expansion, which most Republicans oppose.

“I don’t want to just be the party of `no,’” said Rep. Alan Redfield, R-Livingston. “I want to have an alternative. …. I want to take time to engage in a dialogue. We can’t just jump in and do it.”

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