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Eye on Boise: ‘Conscience law’ living will tweak stalls

Sun., Feb. 6, 2011

BOISE – Legislation to amend the “conscience law” Idaho passed last year to make sure it doesn’t authorize violations of living wills may die without a hearing.

House State Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, says he hasn’t decided whether to allow a hearing on HB 28. “I’m prone not to,” Loertscher said. “It’s only been in effect for six months or less. Let’s see how it goes for a while.”

As the chairman of the committee where the bill’s been assigned, Loertscher can kill it simply by sticking it in his desk drawer and never scheduling a hearing.

Rep. Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls, said he introduced the bill after numerous constituents pleaded with him to do so. “I think it’s very important to hear that bill,” Smith said.

The conscience law was aimed at letting health care providers decline to provide any service that violates their conscience; it’s located in the part of Idaho’s state code regarding crimes relating to abortions.

But it also covers anything regarding “end of life care.” Smith, an attorney, said that conflicts with Idaho’s existing law, which says patients who make out living wills or advance care directives have a right to have their wishes followed.

“In my view, and so many that I’ve talked to, including other legal counsel, it does pre-empt the living wills,” Smith said. “It lets a care provider make a decision that would be contrary.”

His bill adds a line to the existing conscience law saying that “no health care professional shall refuse to follow the patient’s or physician’s directions as established in” the existing living will law. It would make no other changes to the conscience law, which Loertscher co-sponsored.

Loertscher said other states have enacted similar measures and had no problems with end-of-life provisions; he said he’s worried about assisted suicide. However, the AARP has heard overwhelming concern about the measure from its members, and amending it is among the top priorities this year for the seniors’ group.

AARP Idaho spokesman David Irwin said, “I will tell you on behalf of our members, this is an issue that they are gravely concerned about.”

Living wills and advance care directives are ways that a patient can specify in advance what kinds of care they wish to receive, and not receive, when they are dying.

Changes to reform bill

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna says he’s made just two changes to his far-reaching school reform plan since a public hearing two weeks ago that drew a huge outpouring of public comment against the plan. He’s changed his online course requirement from two courses per year all through high school – a total of 8 credits – to a requirement for 6 credits taken anytime during the course of high school. And he’s added an option for school districts to develop an alternative requirement for those students who “are not successful in an online environment.”

Luna said his changes weren’t necessarily in response to the testimony, but “were driven more by conversations I had with local superintendents.”

Budget changes

Key lawmakers now say much bigger budget cuts than anticipated might have to be made in public schools and Medicaid. Public schools, for which Gov. Butch Otter proposed a flat budget next year, might have to take cuts of between $50 million and $81 million, according to the co-chairmen of the Legislature’s joint budget committee. Medicaid, for which Otter proposed cutting $25.2 million in state funding, might need to take $35 million to $50 million.

That warning came a week after the governor, the House speaker and the Senate president pro-tem warned of a budget hole for next year of up to $185 million, including the $35 million in cuts Otter already had proposed. That figure has fallen, however, because the House on Friday unanimously passed legislation to conform Idaho’s income tax laws to IRS rules that would cost the state just $20 million between this year and next – not the $70 million anticipated a week earlier. That bill is on a fast track and headed to the Senate.

Plus, January tax revenues came in $15 million ahead of projections, despite a big unanticipated payout for alternative energy sales-tax rebates – suggesting the economy is doing better than anticipated.

Still, based on what lawmakers know now, they’re anticipating possible cuts of $137.9 million next year – more than $100 million more than the governor proposed.

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