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Minority Democrats outline top priorities for 2021 session

Proposals focus on health care
Democratic lawmaker introduces first Medicaid expansion bill at 2019 Legislature
Posted at 6:16 PM, Jan 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-14 20:16:13-05

HELENA — Democrats may be in the minority at the Montana Legislature, but they’re still pushing forth their top priorities, which are focused on health care costs, coverage and employment.

“Our clear alternative (to Republican plans) … is comprehensive health care, job creation and lowering the cost of care for Montanans,” Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, said Wednesday.

Caferro, Rep. Jessica Karjala of Billings and Sen. Shane Morigeau of Missoula met with reporters to detail proposals that include capping insulin costs for diabetes patients, requiring health-care providers to reveal certain costs and expanding a program to help low-income people find jobs.

Morigeau said even though Democrats are in the minority at the 2021 Legislature and the governor is Republican, they’re hopeful they can find some successes.

“We represent a major portion of the state, and I would hope that our colleagues across the aisle would recognize that and recognize the fact that their voices are just as important as everyone else’s,” he said. “All these bills – they cost little or nothing to the taxpayer, they help our economy, and they lower costs for Montanans.”

Republicans hold a 67-33 majority in the Montana House and a 31-19 margin in the Senate. Gov. Greg Gianforte, elected in November, is the first Republican governor in 16 years.

Caferro noted that Republicans, on a budget committee, last week set the starting point for the state health-and-human-services budget at $1 billion lower than its current spending.

While Republicans say it’s just a starting point, as they craft the 2022-23 budget, Caferro equated it to a cut. She said Democrats will argue against it and present their own proposals for health-related programs and initiatives.

“If my boss came to me and said, `You are going to get a 5 percent raise – however, it won’t be based the wage you make today, but on the wage you earned five or six years ago?’” she said. “Is that not a cut?”

Karjala said she’ll be sponsoring a bill to limit the cost of insulin to $35 a month, for diabetes patients, requiring health insurance to cover any additional cost.

Insulin is a matter of “life or death” for the 64,000 Montanans who have diabetes and they’re being forced to pay ever-higher, exorbitant costs for insulin, she said. Her bill will cap those costs at an affordable level, she said.

Morigeau said he’ll be introducing a bill to require medical providers to give written breakdowns of costs for non-emergency procedures, so patients won’t be caught paying high, unexpected charges.

Gov. Gianforte also has said he wants to enact laws to prevent “surprise health-care billing,” although his proposal is aimed at out-of-network costs.

And, finally, Caferro said she’ll be proposing an expansion of a job-training program linked to Medicaid expansion, which provides health coverage to 85,000 low-income Montanans.

Those covered by Medicaid can go through a program that tries to help find them a job, and Caferro said her bill would enhance that program so it guides people toward careers in health care, which is facing shortages in Montana right now.