Into the woods 

Vote to block Medicaid expansion will haunt Republicans

For two men who look great with mustaches, Rep. Art Wittich, R–Belgrade, and I sure are different. For example, look at how we spent Friday afternoon.

In his capacity as head of the House Health and Human Services Committee, Wittich heard six hours of testimony on House Bill 249, which would accept federal funding to expand Medicaid coverage to 70,000 uninsured Montanans. One witness, investment banker Mark Semmens, estimated that expansion would bring $5 billion into Montana over the next six years and create 12,000 jobs. As supporters packed the Capitol, dozens of doctors and health workers urged Helena to accept federal funding to expand Medicaid.

Then the 10 Republicans on the committee voted "do not pass" on HB 249, requiring a 60-vote supermajority for the bill to proceed to general debate. Under Wittich's leadership, Health and Human Services has prevented the proposal to accept Medicaid expansion from even reaching the House floor.

Meanwhile, I was up Pattee Canyon in my capacity as a rake, taking a constitutional around the third trailhead—just past the place where conjecture meets analogy. In this dark stretch of woods, where I often go to clear my head, I encountered a man lying on the ground next to a bicycle.

This mysterious man lay on his side with his hands stretched toward his leg, which took one more turn than the usual leg. My detective's eye suggested he had fallen. This suspicion was confirmed by his soft moaning and the rather immodest length of bone sticking out from his shin. I could not know for sure without risking conversation, but this man looked hurt.

My first impulse was to help him. One often feels such irrational urges on seeing another person in distress. But then I remembered the question one must always ask before administering first aid: Does this person deserve it?

His bicycle and helmet suggested that this man brought this tragedy on himself. He probably rode out to the woods with no plan in case of a compound fracture, and by helping him I would only encourage others to make the same mistake. Soon the woods would be littered with crooked bodies, moaning and awaiting handouts.

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And who knew what helping this layabout might cost me? Sure, today you can call an ambulance for someone else and not pay for it, but what about in the future? Probably this shiftless lackblood would run out of money, and then the laws governing contracts in the United States would fundamentally change, and bang—I'm stuck with the bill.

Plus I hate doctors, so I left him there. If he didn't want to bleed to death in the woods, he should have either not broken his leg or brought some paramedics in with him. I can't bail out every screwup who's too lazy to keep an intact skeleton.

I know what you're thinking: Wasn't my Friday afternoon eerily similar to Wittich's, when you think about it? I admit the superficial parallels are striking. But nobody asked Wittich to come up with a plan to expand insurance coverage for low-income Montanans and fund it all by himself.

Gov. Steve Bullock handed Wittich a complete plan with an established program in place, funded by the federal government. All he had to do was pass it along to the House. For our man-in-the-woods analogy to hold up, Wittich would have to come upon a bicyclist with a broken leg, see that an ambulance had arrived, and chase the paramedics away.

That's the difference between my Friday afternoon and Wittich's. For 70,000 uninsured Montanans, help had already arrived. Our representatives in the U.S. Congress passed and funded a law to give them coverage under Medicaid five years ago. Last Friday, Wittich and his caucus blocked it, again.

Henry Kriegel, a representative of Americans For Prosperity-Montana and one of the few witnesses to speak against HB 249 on Friday, summed up their attitude neatly. "It's the only part of Obamacare that we as a state can reject," he told the committee, "and we urge you to reject it."

Wittich seemed to agree with Kriegelmore than he agreed with 12,000 jobs, $5 billion and the health of 7 percent of this state. He has bucked popular opinion and the will of several members of his own party to stand on principle. His position is expensive, unpopular and potentially deadly, but he is sure enough to refuse to let the rest of the House even argue about it, much less vote.

In his confident resistance to federal overreach, Wittich joins such storied leaders as Orval Faubus. Where the U.S. Congress, the governor and scores of witnesses have said yes, the representative from Belgrade says no. I hope he is right. It's not the kind of mistake you want to make. I would hate to think that guy in the woods really did deserve my help, because the last thing anybody needs is a vengeful ghost.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and dudes he met in the woods at

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