There's a lot at stake for the future of the Affordable Care Act in next month's general election.
Voters say health care is among their top concerns and, here in Montana, people are paying attention to what the candidates are saying about "Obamacare" and coverage for patients with pre-existing conditions.
Years after it was approved, the ACA, or Obamacare, has a lot of public support, and there's a lot of opposition to the program too.
No matter what your political preferences, there's something voters can agree on: health care is important and can be an emotional issue.
“I pay for my health insurance out of pocket.”
Laura Packard lives in Nevada, and she's visiting Montana this week to promote the Affordable Care Act.
Her work with the ACA dates back to when it was approved by Congress eight years ago.
Now, she travels with a group called "Protect Our Care.”
These advocates want to keep Obamacare going as it struggles under the pressures of rising health care costs and political opposition.
The Trump Administration and some key members of the GOP have tried - unsuccessfully so far - to have it completely repealed.
Packard is a cancer survivor and she's focused on one message: keep the ACA around and get congress to work together to identify the problems and deal with them...
"I don’t have any subsidies, and that’s fine, but there are people who are not as fortunate as me that really struggle to pay for health insurance, and those people have been left behind because in the constant back and forth battle, no one’s taking care of the people who really need to be taken care of.”
This week at Riverstone Health in Billings, Packard and the ACA supporters including the "Protect our Care" campaign gathered in a conference setting to consider what needs to be done to better inform people about their options under Obamacare and continue to enroll new patients despite the opposition to the program.
Packard is a supporter of the ACA’s role.
“It’s not a perfect system, but it has made it so with people with preexisting conditions can get care and that the care that you buy is actually good care.”
She's glad she's been around to defend the ACA even as the program receives a new round of scrutiny in this election cycle as many of the candidates for national and local offices declare they'll stand up for the program or work hard to knock it down.
“I had no idea when I was fighting for the affordable care act in the first place that one of the lives it would be saving was my own, so good on me for forethought I guess.”
Self-employed and with a cancer scare of her own...Packard is confident the problems with the ACA can be ironed out over time. Right now, political leaders in 20 states are suing the federal government in hopes of getting rid of Obamacare entirely.
Last year, the Trump Administration was able enough congressional support to repeal the penalty for those who did not purchase insurance to meet the minimum requirements of the health program. That penalty goes away next year.
Montana is not among the states that joined forces in the lawsuit challenging the ACA. In 2015, the state signed onto Medicaid expansion, which Billings’ State Representative Kathy Kelker says is a partnership between the state and federal government. And there's opportunity for further expansion under a recent White House policy where states can apply for additional Medicaid waivers...
She says that’s not a bad deal. Especially since Montana is dealing with budget problems.
“Right now, the commitment of the federal government is 90 percent of the cost, and 10 percent at the state level. And if you think about it, a 10 percent expenditure for the state is getting off pretty cheap.”
According to state numbers from the state Department of Public Health and Human Services, more Montanans are signing up for the ACA in the reformed market system. The Department estimates the percentage of uninsured residents dropped from 20 percent in 2012 to about 8 percent this year. And there's room for more.
Former Montana legislator Kim Gillin is with Protect Our Care Montana.
She's on edge thinking about what could happen if the political mood in congress moves closer to the side of repeal and replace.
The ultimate impact will be placed on people who have those pre-existing conditions like a cancer history, diabetes or other chronic ailments.
“Some people will just forego any kind of healthcare because it’s too expensive… The other thing is some people may not be able to continue working. It’s really difficult to keep a job if you have some kind of illness. And so, I think it will be a lose-lose for Montana’s economy if the Affordable Care Act goes away.”
The early voting is getting underway in the region, and people will have health care on their minds when they enter the polling place or mail in their early ballots.
The “Protect our Care" conference in Billings was scheduled at a strategic point in the debate, right before the November elections and in advance of the open-enrollment period for health insurance that starts on November 01.