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Panel OKs Idaho health insurance exchange

Otter’s controversial plan must be approved by House, Senate

BOISE – Gov. Butch Otter’s controversial state health insurance exchange legislation won near-unanimous support from a Senate committee Thursday, delivering a key victory for the Republican governor.

The only member of the Senate Commerce Committee to oppose the bill was Democratic Rep. Branden Durst, of Boise, who said he favors the exchange but was concerned that the bill as written didn’t provide for enough legislative oversight.

Opponents wearing swatches of bright pink tape filled the Capitol Auditorium for the hearing, with many saying they opposed both a state exchange and a federal exchange – the alternative if the state doesn’t set up its own.

Tom Munds, of Caldwell, told the senators, “The simple fact that Idaho would even consider a monster like this scares me. If the people truly prefer a form of government foreign to our Constitution, then they do so at their own ignorance.”

Wayne Hoffman, head of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a conservative lobbying group, warned, “You will be under the thumb of the federal government.”

But the senators said they were left with little choice.

“I despise Obamacare, and that’s actually an understatement,” said Sen. Todd Lakey, R-Nampa. “But I have to look at … the reality of the way it stands now. I don’t believe that if we don’t do a state exchange, that the federal government will not be able to make it happen. … The reality we’re facing is either the federal government exchange, which I think is the worst option, or the state exchange.”

Lakey said Idaho can at least include “free-market principles” in its exchange, like the bill’s provision that participation is voluntary.

Both North Idaho senators on the committee, Sens. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, and Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, voted in favor of the bill, SB 1042. To become law, it still must pass the full Senate and House and receive the governor’s signature.

Schmidt, a physician, said, “This is an opportunity, and I’m sorry, we have problems with health care in this country. We have problems with health care in this state.”

David Hensley, Otter’s chief of staff, told the senators that the cost to build and set up a state-based health insurance exchange like the one Otter is proposing is about $20 million, and there is a federal grant for $20 million available. It is estimated that the state-run exchange will cost $10 million a year to run, which Hensley said could be covered through a per-member, per-month fee of about $4.80 for the estimated 177,000 people who will use it.

In contrast, he said, the federal government has informed state lawmakers that an exchange run by the federal government would cost nearly triple.

“At the end of the day, if we can save Idahoans money, which we believe we can, by operating this in a more efficient manner, we should,” Hensley said.

Joe Rohner, speaking against the bill, told the senators, “From this day forth, Mr. Otter owns Obamacare, which shall now be known statewide as Ottercare.”

Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said, “I wish I had another choice. The only choice I see is for us to follow what I think was the lead of Gov. Otter, and I think he should be commended, not criticized. He’s trying to protect our rights, he’s trying to protect our sovereignty.”