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Gov. Steve Bullock says Montana's health clinic for state employees helped save taxpayers $2 million last year

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HELENA, Montana — Montana officials said they have averted a massive financial shortfall that could have possibly erupted into a political and budgetary headache over the state's health care system.

Gov. Steve Bullock said Tuesday his budget officers originally projected a $12 million deficit last year for the Montana State Employee Health Plan. Instead, state officials squeezed out $2 million in savings — partly because of wider use of Montana's six state-run health clinics.

Without the cost savings, state officials say they would have had to dip into reserves — or increase insurance premiums, deductibles and co-pays. Asking the Legislature for more money would not have been an immediate option because it is not in session this year.

The first of Montana's health centers opened in Helena in 2012 amid the national debate over revamping the country's health care system. The clinic, established under the administration of then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer, was heralded as the nation's first government-run health center.

Since then, at least a handful of states have looked into replicating Montana's model, which serves about 34,000 state workers and their dependents. Last fall, New Mexico opened its own clinic for public employees, which Gov. Susana Martinez said would save her state $3.5 million annually.

Last year in Montana, more than 75,000 appointments were handled by clinics in Anaconda, Billings, Butte, Helena, Mile City and Missoula, "By utilizing the health centers and becoming wiser consumers, they have helped control costs," Bullock said Tuesday during a news conference at the state health center in Helena.

In addition to increased traffic at health clinics, state officials say they have reduced costs by contracting with a new health care management company, Missoula-based Allegiance, which resulted in lowering administrative fees. The state is now also handling its own data services, shedding outsourcing costs.

The health clinics cost the state very little money. But state officials say they have already saved the state millions of dollars in taxpayer money by reducing the amount spent on expensive health services avoided through routine preventative care visits.

"If you can get care for a condition before it gets serious, it will save money in the long term," said Sheila Hogan, the director of the Department of Administration, which oversees the state's health care system.

Montana's health centers waive deductibles and co-pays, which Hogan said reduces barriers to accessing primary care doctors.

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