- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 8, 2015

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - The Montana House of Representatives voted Wednesday to blast a Republican lawmaker’s Medicaid expansion bill to the floor after two hours of back and forth over procedural rules as conservative Republicans attempted to derail the measure.

Eleven Republicans joined all 41 Democrats to bring the measure out of the House Human Services Committee by a 52-48 vote.

Senate Bill 405 is set for a second reading floor debate and a vote Thursday.

Before the blast motion, the 52 lawmakers also voted in effect to overrule procedural decisions made by Republican House Speaker Austin Knudsen of Culbertson. The struggle involved two Rules Committee meetings, a caucus meeting and a flurry of related motions on the floor.

Knudsen had asked for support from Republicans before floor action began, telling them no deals were broken when the House Human Services Committee sent an adverse report to the House that would normally require 60 votes to overturn it and get the bill to the floor.

“Today’s arguably the biggest day of the session,” he told Republicans. “What I am here to implore you is that you not throw the rules out.”

But Minority Leader Chuck Hunter of Helena objected to the report on the grounds that it violated a prior agreement allowing six designated bills to come to the floor with only a simple majority vote. He said the bill needs to be debated on the floor.

“I think it’s a very good compromise,” Hunter said of the measure, adding that he has struggled to accept some pieces of the bill.

Sen. Ed Buttrey of Great Falls introduced The Montana Health and Economic Livelihood Partnership (HELP) Act in March, after the governor’s measure was defeated by the same committee with an adverse report.

Under the measure, federal funds would be accepted to expand Medicaid eligibility to low-income people but would require them to pay premiums each month as well as co-payments for certain services. Enrollees would be asked to participate in a workplace assessment survey designed to help them get better-paying jobs. Adults making up to $16,242 a year and a family of four earning up to $33,465 would become eligible for Medicaid health insurance.

Buttrey estimates that because people would have to pay premiums, about 45,000 Montanans of about 70,000 who would become eligible would enroll in Medicaid.

Republican opponents of the bill have said expanding Medicaid would be costly, especially down the road as federal funding lessens and that it would give able-bodied people an entitlement that would never end.

Republican Rep. Rob Cook of Conrad, who will present the bill Thursday, said the bill is a solution that has a chance.

“What brought me around to this sort of action was six years of no from the Republican party and their unwillingness to work on a health care solution,” he said. “I think that this is worth a try.”

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