- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Aug. 2, on a lack of growth in the workforce:

As the local economy continues to recover and thrive in the post-recession years, a familiar obstacle to economic growth is emerging: lack of workers to fill newly created jobs. You don’t have to be an economist to notice this phenomenon. Casual observers can’t help but notice the proliferation of help-wanted signs is many of the businesses we patronize.

And what’s going on locally could be a magnified and accelerated picture of what is going to happen throughout Montana.

A recent report by the Montana Department of Labor and Industry projects that state job growth in the coming years will be hampered by a lack of corresponding growth in the workforce. The report, “Will Montana Face a Worker Shortage?,” suggests increasing numbers of baby boomers retiring, coupled with stagnant growth in younger population demographics, could push the state into a labor shortage crisis in just a few short years.

Historically, at least over the last half century, Montana has been a chronically low-wage state, ranking among the lowest in median and household incomes. As the 21st century unfolds, there may be opportunities to change that. The Rocky Mountain region is an attractive destination for urban refugees looking for a more amenable lifestyle. But in migration will halt if prospective newcomers can’t put together an affordable living situation.

Montana doesn’t have the political will, nor is there the economic justification, for jumping on the $15-an-hour minimum wage bandwagon taking hold in coastal metropolitan areas. But forward-thinking employers looking to grow their businesses in the coming years may want to get out in front of this labor shortage by increasing the attractiveness of the jobs they create - not just with higher wages, but with better benefits, like paid parental leave and strong health-care and retirement packages.

And the problem here in the Bozeman area is exacerbated by the perennially expensive housing market. Even if employers are willing to pay a premium to lure new workers here, it won’t happen if those workers are unable to put a roof over their heads on the wages they are paid. The emerging labor shortage makes more urgent the need for business and government leaders to find ways to build affordable homes.

The 21st century economic prospects are bright for our state - and for Southwest Montana in particular. But we need to take a lesson from our history and not let the same old problems get in the way.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/1M507m5

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The Great Falls Tribune, Aug. 4, on roadside safety:

It was a nightmarish scene. A kind Montana couple stops to help a man who claims to have run out of gasoline.

Instead, the brutal traveler in the Crow Indian Reservation town of Pryor shoots and kills man and wife, and then shoots the couple’s daughter in the back, although the woman survives.

The Good Samaritans in this case were Jason Shane and Tana Shane, both of Pryor, and their daughter, Jorah Shane, who was hospitalized in Billings after the midweek incident with a gunshot wound to the back, her head also grazed by a bullet.

“It’s a heartbreaking story,” said John Barnes, Montana Department of Justice communications director.

“It’s unfortunate that there are people out there whose actions make us question whether or not we should stop and help someone because we fear for our own personal safety,” said Great Falls Police Sgt. Jim Wells.

Authorities allege Jesus Deniz, also known as Jesus Deniz Mendoza, pointed a rifle at the family and ordered them out of their car. When the Shanes said they had only small change after attending a religious revival in Arizona, Deniz allegedly shot all three family members. Authorities said Deniz, a permanent resident from Mexico who lives with his parents in Worland, Wyo., told them he was tired the robbery was taking so long, and he was upset the daughter laughed at him. Deniz was arrested in Wyoming following the shooting.

This was not only a horrible attack on innocent Montanans trying to help a traveler, but also a brutal strike at the way of life of people in this area. Many of us have read about incidents in other states, where a female criminal pretends to be broken down on the side of a road, and then a male criminal leaps up from behind the car to rob or kill Good Samaritans who stop to help. Yet this kind of thing has happened rarely in Big Sky Country.

We’d hate to see this incident prompt people to ignore someone who needs help, when more than 99 percent of the time it’s possible to stop and render aid without becoming a crime victim. Yet it’s impossible to ignore the potential danger facing someone stopping to help out.

Caution is a good first step. Wells recommends considering the circumstances when deciding whether or not to stop on the side of the road and offer assistance. He added that even as an armed officer with years of experience and training, he would be sure to let dispatch know exactly where he was and what he was doing, especially if he was alone.

Barnes said he knows Montanans want to help.

“Certainly, the impulse to stop and help someone is admirable,” Barnes said Tuesday. “We do recommend that, for safety reasons, pick up your phone (to call) 9-1-1 or local law enforcement. That, I think, is a much safer approach. Most of the time, somebody pulls over to help somebody and everything’s fine. I’ve done that.”

But, Barnes added, “Something can go bad.”

Cellphone service has improved in Montana. “In today’s world, most people have a cellphone,” Barnes concluded. “Use the phone; make the call.”

Barnes said 9-1-1 works best. He said drivers also can call the Montana Highway Patrol’s toll-free number, 855-MHP(647)-3777 for assistance, or local law enforcement, if the number is known.

Having a trained law enforcement officer handle roadside assistance seems sensible, although we are sure many helpful Montanans will continue to stop and assist out of kindness and a sense of community.

In the least, motorists should be cautious approaching a stalled vehicle on the highway. If anything looks suspicious, drive away and call law enforcement. People who are armed might feel more comfortable stopping to help, but it can remain difficult to defend oneself in an ambush.

Editorial: https://gftrib.com/1Ipt8nZ

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The Billings Gazette, Aug. 4, on health coverage for Montana’s low-income residents:

How many Montanans will gain health coverage through the 2015 HELP Act before the Legislature reconvenes in January 2017? 20,000? 40,000? More? Fewer?

The answer depends on when the state’s Medicaid expansion connects with low-income Montanans ages 19-64.

Montana’s plan for covering all very low income adults with Medicaid is a mixture of health care expansion and political compromise.

To enact a law that makes 70,000 Montanans eligible for Medicaid, health coverage proponents had to agree to charge monthly premiums to impoverished people and to contract with a private company to administer the coverage and premium collections.

The state must convince federal health authorities that the usual provisions of federal law should be set aside to let Montana demonstrate how its plan works.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services should grant Montana the waivers. The agency has already allowed similar exceptions for five other states.

Exceptions for 5 states

Arkansas, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan and Pennsylvania all received waivers to charge premiums or monthly contributions to Medicaid expansion enrollees, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. These charges have been about 2 percent of enrollee income, which is what Montana law requires.

Although none of the other waiver states is using a third-party benefit administrator as Montana proposes, the state of Arkansas is providing premium assistance for Medicaid eligible people to buy private insurance policies on the exchange, said Robin Rudowitz, a Medicaid policy analyst at Kaiser.

A Kaiser Foundation review of research on how premium charges affect low-income enrollment in health care found “potential savings to states related to these measures, but also the potential risk of increased barriers to access care, increased unmet needs, worse health outcomes, substitution of more expensive care for more efficient care, increased burdens for safety-net providers and increased administrative costs.

In some cases, the administrative costs of collecting premiums from poor people exceed the amount collected.

Montana also is asking CMS to allow enrollees to be eligible for 12 months, instead of cutting them off any month their income goes up. People need insurance year round.

Year-round coverage

When Anna Whiting Sorrell was Montana DPHHS director, she saw the effects of “churning” on Medicaid enrollees. Many people work seasonal jobs and have periods of unemployment annually, she said. They would qualify for Medicaid and then lose it when their seasonal work boosted their income.

“People in poverty need health care,” said Sorrell, now director of operations for Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribal Health.

Some states use 12-month eligibility for children and parents on Medicaid, Rudowitz said, adding: “It’s quite effective for managing continuity of care.”

A Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services request for proposals says the state wants the health care coverage to start Jan. 1. Several things will need to happen quickly to meet that target.

After the state’s 60-day public comment period on its Medicaid waiver proposals ends next month, the waiver request will go to CMS, which will set its own 30-day comment period. No one is guaranteeing when the waiver will be granted. Meanwhile, the state will need to contract with a private company to administer the program.

Then 70,000 extremely low income Montanans will be eligible for Medicaid, including about 20,000 Native Americans.

Bullock, Tester lead the way

Expect these folks to sign up gradually. Most haven’t had insurance or Medicaid, so it’s not necessarily something they think about - until they get sick or injured. The majority of signups are likely to be through efforts of Montana health care providers who see patients regardless of their ability to pay. John Felton, CEO at RiverStone Health, has said that about 8,000 of the clinic’s clients will be eligible for Medicaid when it expands.

In a state of 1 million citizens, covering 70,000 will be a huge benefit. The HELP act will create jobs, improve the health of parents, young adults and other low-wage workers, and provide a lifeline to people who can’t work until they get well.

Gov. Steve Bullock and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester must keep up their personal efforts to move the waiver process along expeditiously. U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke and Sen. Steve Daines ought to be helping, instead of talking repeal. Their constituents’ lives and health will benefit from Medicaid expansion.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/1MOIDva

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