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Idaho bill to provide health insurance for poor stalls again

Idaho Statehouse.

The Idaho Statehouse. Lawmakers don’t appear likely to take action this session on a bill that would provide insurance to the state’s neediest population. File photo.

An Idaho health care proposal to provide insurance to the state’s neediest population met its death once again on March 21.

Repeating the actions taken earlier this year, House lawmakers sidestepped debating the merits of the health care bill by voting instead to send the proposal back to the House Health and Welfare Committee. Moving the bill this late in the session signals lawmakers won’t take any further action on the issue.

Yet, the move backed by legislative leaders wasn’t without its resistance. Health care advocates packed the House gallery and broke out into chants yelling “save the plan” and “shame” before being escorted out by Idaho State Police. That passionate outburst then set the tone for the emotional and lengthy debate for lawmakers — many of whom spent their time pointing out that finding a way to provide health care for the state’s uninsured is the only issue where leadership has shirked from holding a public debate.

“I don’t mean to be hyperbolic, but people do die without access to health care,” said Rep. John McCrostie, a Democrat from Boise, while debating the issue on the House floor.

This is the sixth year in a row that GOP lawmakers have shown they have no appetite to address the state’s so-called Medicaid gap population during the legislative session. This year was considered particularly challenging because every state lawmaker is up for re-election in May and risked potential criticism from conservative opponents.

However, the effort refused to die even after House members voted earlier this year that they wouldn’t publicly debate Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s health care proposal. While legislative leaders declared the House decision put the issue to rest for the remainder of the session, a handful of members on the House’s Health and Welfare Committee bucked leadership and forced the bill back to the vote.

“I have been all but spit on in this body for bringing the bill back,” said Rep. Christy Perry, a Republican from Nampa, during her teary debate. “But I don’t give a damn what anyone thinks of me in here, I am here to represent my people who have cried to have some progress made on this. We have an opportunity to do something.”

About 51,000 to 62,000 working Idahoans are believed to be in the gap population that earns too much to qualify for Medicaid, but too little to qualify for insurance subsidies.

photo of ilana rubel

Rep. Ilana Rubel

“It is a tragedy that anyone here would suffer virtually being spit on for showing that kind of courage,” said Rep. Ilana Rubel, a Democrat from Boise, who also began tearing up on the floor. “People shouldn’t face that for refusing to be a sheep and standing up to the powers that be.”

House Speaker Scott Bedke briefly interrupted Rubel, instructing her to pause and gather her thoughts.

“I am gathered, Mr. Speaker,” Rubel responded. “I don’t think it’s out of order for showing some emotion on an emotional topic.”

Proponents of delaying the vote countered that once an issue dies on the Senate or House floor, they rarely come back successfully in the following years.

“This bill was never going to go anywhere this year, but it was a great idea,” said Rep. Fred Wood, a Republican from Burley and chairman of the Health and Welfare Committee. “We have to survive to play for another day and win another ball game because I intend to be back. So, Mr. Speaker, I’ll vote to send it back and fight another day.”

Just 27 of 69 House lawmakers voted against sending the bill back to committee; all 11 House Democrats and 16 Republicans.

Otter’s bill would have provided coverage to roughly half of the health coverage gap population by seeking two federal waivers.

One waiver would allow low-income individuals to qualify for subsidies available to those of higher incomes. The other would expand Medicaid eligibility to pay for 12 serious and costly medical conditions.

The plan was to shift an estimated $200 million in medical claims from the private insurance market to the federal government, reducing private insurance premiums about 20 percent.

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