Representatives of local agencies — and of the local legislative delegation — heard a summary of what is expected to happen with children’s health issues at the next Montana Legislature.
“This is a very challenging Legislature we are heading into,” said Steve Yeakel, executive director of the Montana Council for Maternal and Child Health.
The council sponsored the meeting, the 15th of 17 across the state, to present what it sees as major agenda items for the next Legislature and to hear ideas from people on what they want the Legislature to enact.
The budget and potential deficit has been a hot topic in the last several months, with the Legislative Fiscal Division predicting a revenue funding deficit of more than $300 million, with Gov. Brian Schweitzer predicting, at most, a $40 million deficit and potentially a surplus.
Sen.-elect Rowlie Hutton, R-Havre, said it will be difficult to fund needed programs.
“We have rough waters ahead,” he said, adding that it seems that everyone going to Helena knows how difficult balancing the budget will be except for Schweitzer.
He said that the local legislators understand and support the need for child health programs.
Yeakel said his council’s focus will be on making sure programs won’t be cut heavily.
“We’ll be on defense,” he said.
He added that as the start of the session moves closer and then actually begins, the council will continue to rework its agenda — deleting some items, adding others and prioritizing the list.
He said a main focus will be on prevention, especially in very early years of childhood. Early investments in prevention can save countless dollars later, especially by preventing long-term problems, Yeakel said.
He said the item that will stay at the top of the agenda is supporting the continuation and continued full funding of Healthy Kids Montana, a voter-approved initiative that combined Medicaid for children and the Children’s Health Insurance Program into one entity and expanded eligibility for the program.
“We’re pleased that the governor fully funded that in his budget proposal,” Yeakel said.
He said another top priority will be increasing the immunization rates in the state. The government has been successful in immunizing, so it’s created the feeling in parents and people who care for children that there no longer is a need.
Yeakel said he recently said he hoped it doesn’t take a major outbreak of disease to get people’s attention — and a few weeks later six cases of pertussis, or whooping cough, were confirmed in Flathead County.
He added that some other issues expected to come up in the Legislature include funding for tobacco prevention programs and consideration of social host ordinances where owners of properties where underage drinking occurs could be held liable.
Some concerns raised by people at the meeting included ensuring that mental health programs for children are available and, if possible, expanded, ensuring that dental care continues to be provided for children and requiring the use of seat belts and child safety seats as a primary law, as well as ensuring that government payment rates for child care are consistent with the standard rates in an area.
Yeakel warned that it could be a long road — economists are predicting the revenue shortfall could last at least four years, and the Legislature following next year’s session still will face it.
Hutton said thinking outside the box may be one way to help — private partnership can help ease the shortfalls.
He used as an example churches, including the Fifth Avenue Christian Church where he is the head pastor, volunteering space and help with providing services for children.
“People do want to give,” he said.