Continuing the Fight for Medicaid Expansion in Montana

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

By Sarah Howell

I sat down to write a piece on access to health care, but I can’t help but mention that we are well into week two of government shutdown with no end in sight. This government shutdown is an unnecessary and aggressive tactic in a war on the idea that government – any government – can be a force for good. We live in a time when so many families and communities are struggling and we need effective, proactive policy solutions. Instead, Congress has shut down the federal government because they refuse to pass a budget that invests in the programs and services our communities need. Congress deserves to hear from all of us: (202) 224-3121 or if you want to be in touch.

Earlier this year, Montana had the opportunity to expand our Medicaid program to provide affordable, quality health care to 70,000 low-income Montanans. Expanding Medicaid would provide an economic boost, creating jobs and bringing federal tax dollars back into the state. Expanding Medicaid would provide health care to 20,000 American Indians and 8,000 uninsured veterans. It would stop the closure of rural hospitals and clinics.

For Rachael, expanding Medicaid would mean getting treatment for her fibromyalgia – treatment she’s currently unable to get because she makes $80 a month over the current Medicaid eligibility limit. For Jennifer, it means getting care for herself and her three kids in her small hometown, instead of driving 90 miles round-trip to access a sliding scale clinic. For Brenda, expanding Medicaid means finally getting the surgery she needs for a neck injury she got in a car accident three years ago.

So it seems like a no-brainer, right? We should jump on this opportunity to make sure our family, neighbors, and community members can get access to health care. Sadly, that’s not how this story goes.

Despite significant statewide support for expansion, conservative out-of-touch leaders in our state legislature blocked efforts to pass a bill expanding Medicaid in Montana. They did so by refusing to allow the state house to vote on the bill. If we had seen a vote, we believe the bill would have passed. Throughout the session, reasonable legislators on both sides of the aisle came together to find a compromise. On the final day that Medicaid expansion was debated in the session, we lost a vote on whether to allow the bill to move to the floor by one vote – and that one vote was a Democrat who accidentally voted the wrong way because he wasn't paying attention. (Life lesson: pay attention when important stuff is happening!) We came very, very close to getting this done.

In Montana, working together is a fact of life. We all know each other and we have to work together to win. But in all my years of organizing, I've never seen a coalition as broad, diverse, and strong as the coalition that came together around Medicaid expansion. Health care providers, business owners, county commissioners, moms and dads, seniors, hospital administrators, farmers and ranchers, labor unions, low-income families – the list goes on. These folks made phone calls, wrote letters, drove hundreds of miles to the Capitol to testify (in snowy February no less!), talked to the press, and shared personal stories. It is nothing more than a shameful failure that conservative legislators ignored their constituents and community members and instead played politics with people’s health.

Fortunately, the story’s not over. (In fact, we think when it comes to organizing for change, the story’s never over!) All those people who poured their hearts, free time, and energy into the fight this spring are back at it. We are asking Governor Steve Bullock, an ally and supporter of Medicaid expansion, to call a special session of the legislature to finish the job left unfinished last April. If that doesn't work, we’ll consider going to the ballot with an initiative. We believe the stakes are simply too high to quit. We believe it is our responsibility as a state and as a nation to take care of our neighbors and community members, especially those most vulnerable and those going without. Access to health care is not a privilege or meant only for those that can afford it. We have the means, the opportunity, and the core values to provide health care to thousands of Montanans. Let’s do this.

Sarah joined Montana Women Vote as Co-Director in February of 2012. Before coming to MWV, she worked as a Field Organizer and Trainer at the Western States Center, a regional social justice non-profit, in Portland OR. She has organized in seven states across the country and has worked on issues ranging from HIV prevention policy and access to health care to LGBT equality and economic justice.

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