Lindeen: Keep Insure Montana

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‘We know what works to help Montana Main Street businesses’

HELENA, Mont. – A popular state program that helps more than 1,100 Montana Main Street small businesses provide health insurance for 6,600 Montanans could be eliminated if a bill promoted by Insurance Commissioner Monica J. Lindeen does not become law.

Insure Montana, which began in 2005, is a unique Montana approach to helping small businesses provide healthcare coverage for their employees and their employees’ families. Tight budgets forced the program to stop accepting new businesses. Nonetheless, some 175 businesses are on a waiting list to participate in the program.

Lindeen is hoping to maintain and improve Insure Montana – which has seen much more success than a similar federal effort created a year ago by the Affordable Care Act.

“Insure Montana has a proven track record of helping Main Street businesses attract and retain hard working employees,” said Lindeen. “We don’t need to re-invent the wheel here. Montana already knows what works when it comes to helping our small businesses.”

Insure Montana, administered by Lindeen’s office, currently has two parts: One is a purchasing pool intended to help small businesses get a lower rate on their insurance by grouping many small businesses together for the purchase. The second is a tax credit that helps lower the cost of small group health insurance.

Senate Bill 99, sponsored by Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, would make several changes to the existing program. First, it would eliminate the purchasing pool. Other changes to health insurance have ended the insurance company practice of charging higher rates to small businesses with a few sick employees. The administration of the program would also be streamlined through discontinuing the current premium assistance payments to employees, and tax credits.

The new program would allow Montana businesses with up to 25 employees to receive premium incentive payments to reduce the monthly costs of providing health insurance. These small businesses would need to pay 100% of the health insurance premium to be eligible for the program. Currently, the program is only for businesses with between two and nine employees.

Importantly, the bill also permits the State Auditor’s Office to apply for a waiver from certain provisions in federal insurance law. This waiver would allow the state to receive federal money to fund the program. If the waiver is accepted, Insure Montana would replace the unpopular federal Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP), which drew only a handful of Montana small businesses last year.

Funding for Insure Montana program is currently paid for through the state tobacco tax, insurance fees and general funds and is set to cease in June of 2015. If SB99 fails to pass, funding for Insure Montana will run out and the program will end next January.

The bill is scheduled to have a hearing before the Senate Business and Labor Committee at the Capitol in Room 422 at 8 a.m. on Friday, January 23, 2015.