Health care 

Medicaid enrollment surges

In the few months since Montana's Medicaid expansion program began, dozens of signup events have been hosted in communities around the state. At a recent gathering hosted by Imagine Nation Brewing, the brewery owners themselves realized they qualified for the assistance.

"I did personally sign up for a plan, because in our first year of business we had almost no income to report," says Robert Rivers, who opened Imagine Nation last spring with his wife, Fernanda Krum. He says the process would have been bewildering but he was helped by insurance navigators from Planned Parenthood of Montana.

"If it weren't for Medicaid expansion and the help of people like Planned Parenthood to help with the system, I think we'd be without health insurance right now," Rivers says.

Rivers and Krum are among the 20,000 Montanans who have so far taken advantage of Medicaid expansion since enrollment started in November.

The Montana State Legislature approved the Health and Economic Livelihood Partnership Act in April, making an estimated 70,000 Montanans eligible for Medicaid for the first time. The federally funded program is intended to target people like Rivers and Krum, who might be self-employed or work in industries that don't typically offer health care, says Jess Rhoades, policy director for the Department of Public Health and Human Services.

The HELP Act's fiscal note estimated that 45,000 people would join within the first four years. In just the first few months since enrollment began in November, it's already nearly halfway there.

About 30 states have passed Medicaid expansion. Rhoades says Montana's system is different in several ways, including that it emphasizes "personal responsibility" by offering job training opportunities and requiring premiums and copays.

Planned Parenthood of Montana was one of the most vocal supporters of Medicaid expansion and currently offers free, one-on-one health insurance enrollment assistance. Planned Parenthood Outreach Coordinator Christopher Coburn says from a personal standpoint, he had concerns about whether the copays and premiums would be a barrier to low-income people trying to use the program.

"But I think what we're seeing is that those copays and coinsurance and premiums are low enough that people can afford them, which is the most important thing," Coburn says.

The system might be frustrating to figure out at times, he says, but it's ultimately worth the hassle.

"Especially in the past, we had to tell people that they fell in the gap, that they make too much to get tax credits for insurance but they're not poor enough to get Medicaid," Coburn says. "So it's been a really powerful thing to see people who've never had access to insurance before."

Planned Parenthood hosts ongoing insurance enrollment assistance, including a special event on Jan. 25 hosted by Imagine Nation Brewing.

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