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One of the most important issues that we will tackle this session is protecting the health care coverage of more than 96,000 Montanans. Last week, the House Human Services Committee voted to advance HB658 to continue Montana’s successful Medicaid expansion program.

Over the course of the session, House Democrats have highlighted the critical need for Medicaid expansion — for enrollees, rural hospitals, and the over 18,000 businesses that employ workers who receive coverage. Democratic lawmakers introduced and sponsored HB425, which would have continued this successful program as it stands today. Unfortunately, HB425 was heavily amended in committee to include measures that would hurt Montana families, and the bill failed to pass.

But the health care of 1 in 10 Montanans is too important to allow Medicaid expansion to expire. Democrats came to the table to negotiate a bill that will gain bipartisan support and will continue to protect Montanans’ access to affordable coverage.

While the new, significantly changed HB658 is far from perfect, Democrats worked hard to improve it so it continues access to coverage and safeguards people’s health care.

As we know, a vast majority of those enrolled in Medicaid expansion are already working or are part of a family that works. For these Montanans, including workers, caregivers, and students, their coverage should not change. This bill also adds in language to protect those who face barriers to work, such as those who have serious medical illnesses that make it difficult to work, live in areas with high unemployment, and experience chronic homelessness. The bill protects individuals with disabilities, those who are medically frail, and victims of domestic violence.

And, if the exemptions don't work as planned and we see the significant issues like those in Arkansas, there is a fail-safe that will trigger an audit of the department’s processes and a potential pause on suspension so the Legislature can make changes.

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Democrats worked nonstop to ensure that the Montanans subjected to reporting requirements will not lose their health care coverage erroneously. We have warned, from the very beginning, that there are potential legal challenges with implementing restrictions on Medicaid enrollment, and that’s why Democrats negotiated to eliminate the provisions that put the entire program at risk if the courts rule certain requirements are invalid.

This was not the first choice of Democratic lawmakers, and we believe this is a significant compromise. However, HB658 is our chance to continue a program that works and is absolutely vital to our state.

Our work is far from over. We can’t keep our constituents waiting to find out if they will have health care in July.

We still need your help to call your legislators and tell them to support HB658. This is a bipartisan compromise that protects health care, limits harm, and allows Medicaid expansion to continue. We hope you will join us in continuing to push for the passage of HB 658 — because Medicaid expansion saves lives.

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Billings state Reps. Kathy Kelker and Jade Bahr are joined in this guest opinion by all the other Democrats serving on the House Health and Human Services Committee: Mary Ann Dunwell, Barbara Bessette, Tom Winter, Kim Abbott, Shane Morigeau and Gordon Pierson.

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