MISSOULA — Local health providers encourage Gov. Steve Bullock to continue efforts to expand Medicaid coverage in Montana, saying it's critical for patients dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
But they also say that even without the COVID-19 crisis, the coverage is an important way to help people improve their quality of life.
During a round-table discussion Thursday at Missoula's Partnership Health Center, Bullock noted how the Legislature's decision to expand Medicaid couldn't have been timed better, giving Montanans a life line for the pandemic.
"Medicaid expansion will cover the costs of COVID-19 related treatments as well as continue to pay for routine medical care," Bullock said. "Low-income adults in states that didn't expand Medicaid wouldn't be eligible for that Medicaid coverage."
Just as importantly, Bullock says the expansion has given Montana's rural hospitals an important financial foothold at a time when many small hospitals across the country are closing.
But those participating in the discussion noted that the expanded coverage is allowing health centers to make a dramatic difference in people's lives. CEO Laurie Francis explained the percentage of patients with no insurance has dropped from 50 percent to 12 percent since the latest expansion. That's allowing the clinic to help people address other social challenges, like housing and underemployment that have a direct impact on public health, and Montana's economy.
"There's huge stumbling blocks in our society that are not the fault of the individual," Dr. James Quirk, the chief medical officer at Partnership Health Center, said. "And it's a failure of the system not of the individual. And we need to have things like Medicaid, as a safety net, to help them."
Quirk told Bullock of the painful experience of trying to help a rancher navigate through a health crisis while in fear of losing his livelihood. Missoula small business owner Amy Coseo told the emotional story of the fear and uncertainty of dealing with a breast cancer diagnosis while self-employed. Circumstances tough enough already, but doubly difficult during a pandemic.
"It becomes that much more essential," Bullock said. "I mean, no one should be making decisions whether to forego preventative care, or making sure that the only places they can get care is an emergency room because they're trying to choose between, literally, keeping a roof over their head, or addressing their healthcare needs."
Bullock said the state is still waiting for word from the federal government on the latest round of Medicaid waivers, but says Montana will be able to continue operating under the most recent state legislation.