(Daily Montanan) Even during these politically charged and polarized times, a new poll suggests Montanans may be a lot more unified in their feelings about healthcare.

New research commissioned by the group Consumers for Quality Care showed that many Montanans are concerned about healthcare’s rising costs even with insurance; broad support for Medicaid expansion; and near unanimous support for the VA.

The research, which was conducted in July, surveyed 601 registered Montana voters, and weighted the results to better reflect the Republican, Democrat and independent split. For example, 53 percent of the respondents said they voted for former President Donald J. Trump, and the largest group said they were Republicans. The polling was conducted by ALG Research and Lake Research Partners.

Among the more surprising results was the widespread support for Medicaid and a prevailing opinion that it should be authorized permanently, rather than needing constant legislative approval.

Sixty-three percent overall said that it should be permanently expanded. More than half of Republicans, 51 percent, agreed and slightly more independents, 53 percent, said it should be expanded.

“The support for Medicaid is quite, quite high, even bipartisan,” said Celinda Lake, a partner with Lake Research Associates. “I think some of this high support would surprise a lot of elected officials in Montana.”

She said that Montana mirrors a larger national pattern, where the federal health program enjoys much more support among people than politicians.

“Those are some of the highest numbers I’ve seen,” she said. “I am not sure if all the politicians understand how robust the support is.”

Other states, for example, Missouri, also share a similar pattern of voter approval and political hostility, but she said it makes sense in Montana.

“People know someone on Medicaid and they see the program working,” Lake said.

Montanans also believe that Montana health care is high quality and don’t want to trade it; however, the polling indicates that despite the Medicaid expansion, many are still struggling to pay to overdue medical expenses or cope with high deductibles.

Lake explained that Montanans have an equally clear picture of ways they believe policymakers could help – cut down on expensive copays or so-called “junk” plans, which offer very limited coverage and high deductibles and copays. They also frequently mentioned the need to curb surprise medical bills.

More than 1-in-4 respondents also told the researchers that they had overdue or unpaid medical bills, and that they worried about their ability to afford medical care.

“While voters believe the health care system in Montana is ‘good,’ ‘expensive’ is the word that dominates their associations with it,” said the pollsters’ report.

“This research confirms what many Montanans have been feeling: the out-of-pocket costs for quality health care are too high,” said Donna Christensen, a founding board member of CQC and the first female physician elected to Congress. “With about 18 percent of Americans with medical debt in collections, it is no wonder why consumers are stressed about the cost of going to the hospital or seeing a doctor. Out-of-pocket costs shouldn’t be so high and unpredictable that they discourage people from seeking care, and insurance should act like insurance and be there for patients when they need it.”

Another key finding of the report is a very wide acceptance of telehealth, something that was not found before the advent of COVID-19.

Now that Montanans have gotten used to telehealth, a majority of respondents said they believe it should be expanded.

That brought with it a new and different concern, broadband.

As many Montanans recognized the importance and, in some cases, the convenience of telehealth, access to broadband emerged as a bigger priority. Without broadband, Lake explained, telehealth is impossible.

“It’s clear it’s essential and that Montanans understand that,” Lake said. “You can’t get telehealth without good broadband and we need better broadband.”

Montanans seemed to get the correlation between telehealth and broadband expansion, with 83 percent saying they wanted to see telehealth continue and 82 percent saying broadband was essential.

Lake said that broadband is one issue that connects rural voters with urban voters – both express concerns about access to good broadband.

“People have had good experiences with telehealth and that’s a testament to providers who have made the experience a quality one,” Lake said.

Finally, the poll found strong support for the VA health system. In fact, the support was so convincing that it goes beyond what a pollster and expert would call “support.”

A whopping 97 percent supported the statement that access to the VA is important, and 92 percent said that they wanted to ensure the VA system would not close.

“That’s more of a value statement than a priority,” Lake said, noting that the support for military is almost unparalleled.

Overall, Lake, a Gallatin County native, said the results seem to reflect a certain Montana sensibility.

“These issues are a lot less polarized,” Lake said. “I think people who would look at the state would expect things to be a lot more polarized, but what’s fascinating about these is the lack of polarization and the consensus.”