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Health care workers rally

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Dozens of advocates for Gov. Steve Bullock's Healthy Montana Plan braved the latest cold snap in Kalispell, Missoula and Great Falls on Feb. 28 to directly challenge conservative nonprofits opposing Medicaid expansion in the state. Those at the Missoula rally chose a particularly fitting field of battle: the curb outside Americans for Prosperity's Reserve Street office. Among those waving signs decrying Koch-fueled dark money initiatives were a number of health care professionals who have seen the plight of uninsured Montanans firsthand.

"I see people who come in all the time who need a procedure done and they have to wait before they're almost dead from their illness before they can have it treated because they don't have the funds," said Cherie Courtney, a registered nurse at Big Sky Surgery Center, where nurses moved to unionize last year. "If we could treat people earlier, we could keep them healthy and we could save so much money."

Hospital officials and health care practitioners across Montana have grown increasingly vocal in favor of expanding Medicaid to some 70,000 citizens currently without coverage. Teton Medical Center in Choteau is a staunch supporter of Bullock's proposal; during a tour with the governor last month, CEO Louie King emphasized that 42 percent of patients at the center are uninsured. Yet groups like AFP and the Foundation for Government Accountability continue to ramp up opposition efforts, most recently in the form of television and radio ads targeting Republican legislators who are open to discussing Medicaid expansion.

"We see the ultimate other end of it," Courtney said, "and I think the politicians who are so prohibitive on these things have never seen people come in in the condition we see people come in. They can't even envision what we're talking about."

Courtney believes health insurance shouldn't be an "elite benefit" but rather a "right for everyone," a sentiment echoed by Sue Kirchmyer, a registered nurse at Community Medical Center. Kirchmyer said the Medicaid expansion rally at its core was a civil rights issue. "Our health is part of our wealth," she said.

The day before the rallies, Bullock took his Medicaid message to BuzzFeed, posting a list of "16 Reasons To Support The Healthy Montana Plan." Communications Director Dave Parker says the article was an attempt to reach a "younger, hipper audience," adding that outreach efforts have paid off in citizen calls to lawmakers in Helena1,300 in favor of expansion, last he'd heard.

"We remain convinced that there are bipartisan majorities in both the House and the Senate that are in favor of expanding coverage," Parker says.

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