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The Montana Food Bank Network works with more than 200 agencies across the state to provide emergency food assistance to those struggling with hunger. In 2013, our agencies served nearly one in seven Montanans. We know that truly ending hunger in Montana requires more than emergency food assistance. It needs long-term solutions to address the root causes of hunger -- and our Legislature has the opportunity to do just that by expanding health care for up to 70,000 Montanans through the Governor’s Healthy Montana Plan (House Bill 249).

Our recent study on the status of hunger in Montana found that lack of access to affordable health care and high medical expenses are significant challenges for our clients, contributing to their need for food assistance. Of those participating in our survey, 30 percent reported having to pay for medical care instead of food, 63 percent had unpaid medical bills and 38 percent had at least one uninsured family member.

Having no or inadequate insurance often leaves households unable to afford care unless it is an emergency. Delaying treatment can have serious implications on both short and long-term health, worsening health conditions and leading to increased costs for both the client and the health care system. More than 55 percent of respondents in our client survey reported avoiding the doctor or filling prescriptions because they were unable to afford it. The increased costs of treating conditions after they have progressed leaves many clients in significant debt and at risk of losing their home, vehicle or savings. Delaying care can also leave people permanently disabled and unable to work due to health conditions that may have been preventable or treatable early on.

By choosing not to expand Medicaid, our state allowed hard-working Montanans to fall through the cracks. According to the Census Bureau, the vast majority of those eligible for expansion are working. These are people who are struggling in jobs that don’t provide enough hours, offer benefits or pay a wage high enough to qualify for financial assistance on the exchange. These are people already at risk of hunger-related health consequences including increased rates of sickness leading to missed days of work and additional medical costs, increased risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer, and increased rates of depression, anxiety and other mental health challenges. These health risks are often exacerbated by a lack of health coverage and result in lower productivity and greater health care costs statewide.

Expanding Medicaid would provide access to medical care, preventative screenings, and important medications for those unable afford them. For our food pantry clients and every other Montanan in the coverage gap struggling to scrape by, the availability of health care would be a significant step in helping them get back on their feet. Providing access to health coverage would be one fewer obstacle in the uphill battle to survive from month to month. It’s in the best interest for all of us to bring our federal tax dollars back to Montana and expand Medicaid. It will create new jobs, help our economy, support our rural hospitals and improve the health and productivity of all Montanans, including those struggling with hunger. It is time to pass the Healthy Montana Plan.

Gayle Gifford is CEO and Lorianne Burhop is Public Policy Manager at the Montana Food Bank Network

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