- Associated Press - Monday, April 15, 2019

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - The Montana Senate on Monday narrowly endorsed a bill to continue the state’s Medicaid expansion program.

The vote came a day before a deadline to send the bill to the state House.

Supporters filled the gallery as the Senate voted 26-24 for the bill, which must pass a final vote Tuesday.

A handful of Republican co-sponsors of Medicaid expansion had held up the Senate vote while awaiting the fate of another bill to allow NorthWestern Energy to purchase an additional share of a coal-fired power plant in Colstrip and additional capacity on a high-voltage power line.

The power and transmission bill was endorsed 62-38 in the House on Monday and also must pass a final vote Tuesday.

Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas urged senators to support other bills that help provide jobs in mining, utilities and agriculture.

“While many people want Medicaid expansion in the state, we also want the jobs and economy bills to pass too,” Thomas said.

Montana’s Medicaid expansion program began in 2015 and covers about 96,000 low-income adults. The current program will expire at the end of June if lawmakers don’t reach an agreement.

The expansion bill, sponsored by Republican Rep. Ed Buttrey, added work requirements, a strengthened asset test and increased premiums for people who stay on the program for more than two years. It levies a tax on hospitals’ outpatient revenue to help leverage more federal funding to increase reimbursement rates for providers.

Thomas was successful in amending the bill last week to let the health department verify an applicant’s income by checking their tax records.

Republican Sen. Dan Salomon rejected opponents’ arguments that the Medicaid expansion program was draining federal coffers, saying anything Montana might do to avoid adding to the $22 trillion federal debt “is like a drop of water in the ocean.”

The state accepts federal money for highways, education and wildlife programs, Salomon said, asking why it should draw the line at Medicaid. He noted economic studies show Medicaid expansion has been good for the state’s economy and for the health of recipients.

Democratic leadership in the Legislature praised Monday’s vote.

“This was a watershed vote that will continue to protect nearly 100,000 of our friends and neighbors,” Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso said. “We know this program works - from increasing access to preventative health care to helping Montanans get to work and kick start their careers.”

If the expansion bill is approved on Tuesday it would go back to the House to consider amendments. The bill passed the House 61-37 in late March.

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