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In Montana, Medicaid's Uncertain Future Stirs Worry

(Flickr/Herry Lawford) (

As one of the states that expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, more than 77,000 Montanans now have access to healthcare, and more than 11,000 of those with coverage are Native American.

When talking to providers and recipients across the state, many emphasized that billing Medicaid for a variety of services helps rural clinics keep their doors open, and keep locals healthy. But with healthcare now up for debate in Washington, its unclear how many will be able to hold onto the insurance they received due to the Medicaid expansion. 

This story originally aired on The Takeaway.

Takeaway Washington Correspondent Todd Zwillich spoke with Anna Whiting Sorrell, the director of operations for the Tribal Health Center on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Before she worked for the tribe, Whiting Sorrell was the head of the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, and was the first Native American person to ever hold that job.

In her work for the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes, Whiting Sorrell is helping individuals navigate tribal healthcare without using the Indian Health Service (IHS). Whiting Sorrell says IHS is underfunded, and that specific tribes know how to provide the best healthcare for their own communities. As of December 1st, the Tribal Health Department has set up its own healthcare network of seven clinics across the Flathead Reservation. Moving away from using Indian Health Service means over 1,000 adult tribal members have gotten coverage under the Medicaid expansion. 

Durand Bear Medicine is the clinical coordinator for the Southern Piegan Wellness Center on the Blackfeet Reservation. Bear Medicine has taken the lead on implementing health clinics in public schools on the reservation. He says that improving healthcare access for kids and families is critical for improving the health of the community.

It's not just people living on reservations that are benefiting from the expansion of Medicaid. Louie King is the president and CEO of Benefis Teton Medical Center in Choteau, Montana. The community's population is just 1,700 and spread across a very rural county. King says that the Medicaid expansion has helped residents seek primary care before their health issues become emergencies. His clinic often sees emergency room visits result in bad debt for low-income community members, something that could be avoided by preventive healthcare earlier in life.

Holly Blauch lives in Kalispell, Montana. She has Level 5 kidney failure, as well as a lung condition known as sarcoidosis, and she received healthcare through the Medicaid expansion in January of last year. She says that without Medicaid, she wouldn't be able to pay her bills because she only works part time. For Blauch, this expansion is her path to a kidney transplant. She says it's her best shot at a normal life.

In this special segment, hear how people in Montana view Medicaid expansion, and its uncertain future.