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Otter wins exchange fight with Legislature

Idaho Senate debates HB 248, the governor's state health insurance exchange bill, on Thursday (Betsy Russell)
Idaho Senate debates HB 248, the governor's state health insurance exchange bill, on Thursday (Betsy Russell)

BOISE – The Idaho Legislature has made it official – Gov. Butch Otter has won his biggest legislative victory in his seven years in office, persuading reluctant GOP lawmakers to approve his plan for a state-based health insurance exchange.

After more than three hours of debate, the Idaho Senate voted 23-12 in favor of the bill Thursday and sent it to the governor’s desk; the measure, HB 248, had earlier passed the House on a 41-29 vote. Despite the long debate, no senators changed their votes from a month earlier, when they passed an earlier version of the bill by the exact same vote.

Coeur d’Alene GOP Sen. Bob Nonini said he picked out his darkest suit to wear for today’s debate. “I believe this is a dark day for Idaho,” he told the Senate.

Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, said creating a state-based exchange meant complying with “unjust law,” and compared the issue to segregation and slavery. “History teaches we don’t change a bad law by complying with it,” Vick said.

Sen. John Tippets, R-Montpelier, countered, “We can say no. We can say it all we want, and the federal government will simply come in and impose a federal exchange.”

Otter argued that Idaho would have more control over its fate if it set up its own exchange, rather than letting the federal government do that for the state. All states must have exchanges by next year, under the national health care reform law, to provide an online portal where residents can shop for health insurance plans and access new government subsidies.

Idaho’s exchange would be an independent agency headed by a 19-member board, including three state legislators. Participation would be voluntary both for consumers and for those offering insurance; and the exchange couldn’t receive any state tax dollars. Federal grants would cover its start-up costs; ongoing operations would be funded by fees.

“I appreciate the Legislature’s support enabling me to do what I believe is right for our citizens,” Otter said in a statement after the Senate vote. “Of course we share strong objections to Obamacare, but as responsible elected officials we also are committed to constructively working together for the best possible outcomes for Idaho. I’m grateful for that collaboration.”

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