February 1, 2005                                                         Contact:Lucas Hamilton

A Healthy Start Toward A Healthier Montana Guest Editorial Submitted by Montana State Auditor John Morrison


      One in five Montanans have no health insurance. None at all.
      
      Think about that for a minute.
      
      If one in five Montanans had no food, surely we'd call it a hunger crisis.
      
      If one in five Montanans had no job, it would clearly be a crisis of unemployment.
      
      So, how can we continue to ignore the growing crisis in health security?
      
      Uninsured Montanans and their families, 175,000 of us, move through life as though teetering on a cliff. They receive none of the benefits of preventive medicine, or regular visits to the doctor. When they are sick or injured, they don't get timely medical attention. And their financial health is always at risk; in Montana and across America, medical bills continue to be the leading cause of personal bankruptcy.
      
      Alarming as things are for the uninsured, this crisis affects each and every Montanan. Why? The experts call it "cost-shifting". When the uninsured eventually require critical medical care, the expenses can be enormous. So, who pays? Insured Montanans do, as hospitals and doctors are forced to pass the expense on to insured patients, driving premiums ever higher.
      
      Most small businesses that want to provide health insurance to their employees find they just can't afford the premiums. Workers are denied pay increases and additional benefits because insurance costs keep going up. Too many Montanans are forced to choose between paying for health care and paying for basic necessities like food or rent.
      
      As State Auditor, I've traveled across Montana, holding town meetings and sitting in coffee shops, and have listened to hundreds of regular folks from all walks of life talk about their health care. If politicians think this is simply another public policy issue, they should be warned: Health care is personal and it's emotional.
      
      Shopkeepers, farmers, teachers, builders, garage mechanics, entrepreneurs, restaurant and tavern owners, public employees, and countless others have shared their concerns and frustrations, fears and anxieties, hopes and ideas. A reporter, while interviewing me on the topic, wept as she told me her own story of a sick child and no health insurance. Again, this crisis affects us all.
      
      Three years ago, I proposed that we start using tobacco tax revenue to help small businesses buy health insurance for their employees, to fully fund the Children's Health Insurance Program (attracting millions in federal matching funds), to help seniors and others afford prescription drugs and to see that doctors and hospitals are adequately paid for treating Medicaid patients. Over 40 major organizations representing business, health care, public health, consumers, seniors, labor, and education, joined the effort.
      
      Last year, Healthy Kids Healthy Montana, a coalition of leading health care and public interest groups from across Montana, put Initiative 149 on the ballot. Montanans overwhelmingly passed the Initiative, providing the funding for these programs. Now we have a remarkable opportunity to take a great step forward.
      
      We have crafted legislation to implement I-149 and honor the voters' mandate by making our proposals a reality. These bills will provide:
      

  • Tax credits for small businesses. The credits will help small business owners provide health insurance to their employees. Some of the credits will be offered to small businesses in danger of dropping their current health insurance plans due to rising premiums. Most will go into a purchasing pool, allowing thousands of small businesses to band together and provide affordable health insurance for their employees.
      
  • Prescription drug relief. Low-income seniors and others will receive credits to offset the cost of prescription medicine. Thousands of lives will be lengthened and improved as a result.
      
  • Health insurance for children. Finally, Montana's Children's Health Insurance Program will be fully-funded. Several thousand additional children will receive health coverage, and matching funds will bring ten million in new federal dollars to our state.
      
  • Medicaid improvements. Doctors, hospitals, and other providers will receive new payments for treating Medicaid patients, another effort to reduce cost-shifting and hold the line on private health insurance premiums.
      
      Governor Brian Schweitzer is committed to these health care priorities, having wisely included them in his budget. He also deserves credit for proposing full funding for tobacco prevention efforts, to keep our kids off of cigarettes and chewing tobacco.
      
      A new legislature with new leadership appears poised to pass these bills and the struggle that we began years ago is nearing success. If we work together and stay focused on the needs of everyday citizens, we can all look forward to a healthier and more secure Montana.