Latest from The Spokesman-Review
Gov. Butch Otter and First Lady Lori Otter will host a free "Trick or Treat" party for children at the state Capitol on Wednesday, with trick-or-treating from 3:30 to 6 p.m. and a costume contest at 5:30. Prizes will be awarded for the best costume portraying an Idaho historical figure, a book or movie character, the scariest, and the most creative; click below for more information. The first lady also will hand out copies of her her children's book, "Ida Visits the Capitol."
In this April 2008 SR file photo, the old Dover Bridge is seen in a rear-view mirror. Looks like the ITD board is The North Idaho bridge received national attention as one of the worst in the country. Now it has been replaced. (SR file photo: Kathy Plonka)
The new Dover Bridge was dedicated this morning. Here's the story from this morning's Bonner County Daily Bee: "Governor Butch Otter and other officials will be on hand today for a dedication ceremony for the new U.S. Highway 2 bridge in Dover. The ceremony starts at 11 a.m. beneath the bridge. Signs will be posted for parking and dedication site location. Dover’s Depression-era truss bridge was replaced a 72-foot-wide steel structure with no overhead encumbrances. The highway has been realigned and includes improved access into the city and a bicycle/pedestrian trail, the Idaho Transportation Department said. The project accommodates future expansion of U.S. 2 west of the bridge spanning the Union Pacific railroad to Rocky Point east of the bridge." More here.
Gov. Butch Otter called this a "big day," announcing that Hewlett-Packard Corp. has been named the successful bidder to supply laptop computers to Idaho high school students. "It's a proud moment for me," Otter said, "that we had an Idaho company that was the successful bidder and that will lead us into that 21st Century classroom."
Three Hewlett-Packard laptop computers are lined up next to a stack of battered textbooks, binders and a calculator today in a conference room at Hewlett-Packard Corp., where Gov. Butch Otter and state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna are gathered along with dignitaries for the announcement of a "major partnership between HP and the State of Idaho:" HP has been selected as the vendor for student laptops under the "Students Come First" technology program.
On the big screen behind the laptops is the logo for Students Come First, Luna's reform program that calls for supplying every Idaho high school student and teacher with a laptop computer. The state has been in the final stages of negotiating an eight-year, $100 million-plus contract to supply the laptops.
The Idaho Legislature's Health Care Task Force, a joint committee of 14 senators and representatives, is hearing updates this morning on the progress of two working groups looking into how Idaho should proceed under the national health care reform law on two fronts: A health insurance exchange, and expansion of Medicaid. State Insurance Director Bill Deal told the lawmakers that the exchange working group will hold its final meeting this Friday, and will settle on its report and recommendations to Gov. Butch Otter on how to proceed.
State Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong told the task force that the Medicaid expansion working group is working through three options: Don't expand Medicaid and keep Idaho's current medical indigency/catastrophic health care fund as-is; don't expand Medicaid and revise the CAT fund system; or expand Medicaid. The no-change option would lead to very fast-growing costs both for the state and for county property taxpayers, Armstrong said. Forecasts show county costs would rise from $29.6 million a year today to $39.6 million a year in 2020, and state costs to the state's general fund from $39 million this year to $52.5 million in 2020.
Revising the CAT program likely would save only about 2 percent on costs, he said, with a new, standardized claims-processing system costing between $1.5 million and $3.5 million. Medicaid expansion, combined with other expected increases in Medicaid, would push Idaho's Medicaid program from the current 229,000 participants to an estimated 453,000 in 2020. Costs would be almost entirely borne by the federal government, though Armstrong warned that that could change in the future if federal policies change.
Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, said the three options don't include one he's been hearing questions about when he goes door-to-door campaigning for re-election: Don't expand Medicaid and eliminate the CAT program, and just say Idaho won't pay for indigent people's medical costs. "Could the state of Idaho just say we're not going to pay for indigent health care?" Schmidt asked. "People argue that that's something we should consider."
Armstrong responded, "Well, then the bad debt would fall on the hospitals and the providers. My first-blush guess is all of us that pay for our own hospital care through insurance, that difference would be immediately transferred. It would be an immediate cost shift to anybody and everybody that's paying for health care - they would have no choice." He added, "It would mean all of the dollars would then end up moving to another pocket."
Gov. Butch Otter has announced that he'll hold his next "Capitol for a Day" event in Pine a week from Friday. That's the same tiny town where Otter has a cabin, and that faced evacuation this summer, along with nearby Featherville, due to the Trinity Ridge wildfire.
“Pine is the kind of place where people from the city go to get away from crowds and breathe fresh air," Otter said, "Now, wildfires have made it a lot busier and smokier than any of us would like this year. And for some of us, that’s more than an inconvenience, because Pine is home. I’m looking forward to hearing from my neighbors about the issues that matter most to them, and to letting them know their community and the independence it represents are important parts of the Idaho way of life.”
Otter will be at the Pine Senior Center on Oct. 19 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., including a noon luncheon with local officials and residents; among those accompanying him will be the state's directors of Fish & Game, Parks & Recreation, Insurance, Homeland Security, and Species Conservation, along with Lt. Gov. Brad Little and officials from the departments of Agriculture, Health & Welfare and Transportation.
Otter's been holding the events monthly, and has already held 59, including at least one in each of Idaho's 44 counties; his goal is to get to every county twice before he completes his current term. Many have been in similarly small towns around the state; last month, he was in Nordman, on Priest Lake.
Debbie Field, Gov. Butch Otter's former drug czar and two-time campaign manager, has raised $200,350 from a single source and spent it on broadcast ads supporting Propositions 1, 2 and 3, also known as "Students Come First" and "The Luna Laws." Field heads a new group, Parents for Education Reform, which filed its Sunshine report Tuesday, a day before the deadline for finance reports covering the period May 26 to Sept. 30. The new political action committee's treasurer is Cordell Chigbrow, who also is Otter's treasurer. All but $32 of the $200,350 raised was paid to Sandler-Innocenzi Inc., for broadcast advertising, which includes radio, TV and internet spots/Dan Popkey, Idaho Statesman. More here.
Question: Why is Gov. Otter and his followers so sold out to the Luna Laws?
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has sent out a guest opinion to Idaho newspapers this afternoon, blaming federal land management policies for this year's destructive wildfires and calling for change. Otter says the answer is more logging and grazing to reduce flammable fuels on federal lands. "Despite the best efforts of our congressional delegation, Idahoans and all Americans will continue paying in many ways for the lack of direction – or misguided direction – that federal laws and policies provide public land managers," he writes. "And while our exceptional firefighters put their lives on the line, the challenges they face on the ground are aggravated by litigious single-interest environmental groups devoted to economically undermining such traditional industries as ranching and forest products."
Click below to read Otter's full article, which concludes: "It’s time for a new dialogue and a new approach to federal land management."
Imagine a classroom of 25 kids — students facing the challenges of schoolwork and the awkwardness and peer pressure that comes with growing up. Now, imagine 720 classrooms. If you can envision that, you have a mental picture of the pervasive reach of cyberbullying in Idaho. Each year, more than 18,000 Idaho kids receive threatening texts or messages. The smartphone that is a must-have and a connection to family and friends also makes it easier for bullies to target victims — perhaps anonymously, often from a distance. The social networking sites that provide young people a virtual gathering place also provide a stalking ground for bullies. For many adults — no matter how much verbal abuse they saw or heard in school hallways or locker rooms — this new form of bullying is more difficult to comprehend/Kevin Richert, Idaho Statesman. More here. (AP illustration)
Question: Do you consider cyberbullying among juveniles to be a problem in Coeur d'Alene?
As the governor's Medicaid working group wrapped up its meeting today, Idaho Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong said it was "nice to hear such agreement on many of these principles - that's very encouraging." He said he'll work on "simple graphic illustrations of costs and impacts" to bring to the panel at its next meeting Oct. 23rd. "I believe we have added to our information base and understanding," he said, including today's point that administrative costs of the current county medical indigency system haven't yet been included in cost estimates. "We're going to try to put a dollar savings to that, so that was a good find today," he said. The next meeting may be the group's final one, Armstrong said, but it'll reserve a date for an additional meeting just in case. "It depends on what happens with the November election - we may be back," he said.
Members of the governor's Medicaid expansion working group are now each sharing "guiding principles" they want to see help guide the panel's future decision on how to proceed. Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, a physician, said the group needs clear, easily understood graphics comparing the costs of each option. "If we really believe that it's going to cost us less in the future, we have to be able to show that," he said. He said there's concern about "creating an adverse business environment in the state of Idaho because we won't expand Medicaid," to the point that a business considering relocating to the state might say, "Wait a minute, you want me to come to the state of Idaho and pick up a part of your indigent care? We're not coming."
Susie Pouliot of the Idaho Medical Association said the IMA physicians took a policy position in July in favor of expanding Medicaid in Idaho. She said their hope was not only to get patients into "the appropriate care … at a more appropriate cost," but also to make the move part of a transformation of health care in Idaho, into a more managed-care type environment, with a medical home model, with community care networks, so that "coordination and transitions are managed in a way that produces good health results."
Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, said this summer she's received more letters, emails and personal contacts than ever before in a campaign season, and they're on this issue. Lodge said many of her constituents are telling her "they don't like Obamacare and they don't want anything that has anything to do with it," and it's challenging to explain to them the issues involved. "We are not doing a good enough job … to show the taxpayers and the citizenry what the costs are going to be," she said.
Gooding County Commissioner Tom Faulkner said, "I think we do want to make the point that we want to promote a strong business environment by minimizing the taxes and the costs to the citizens of the state. That is a big deal." He added, "Part of the problem with our health care is our providers are going through the roof with the costs … just because they could get away with charging us whatever they want to charge us."
Dan Chadwick, head of the Idaho Association of Counties, said of the existing medical indigency program, "They're unsustainable numbers. We cannot afford those any longer. And those same people that are going to the county now for assistance are the ones that are paying those increased property taxes or state taxes." He said the current system "puts incredible pressure on county governments trying to keep up with those costs, simply because they're not predictable."
Mike Baker of the Idaho Primary Care Association is now briefing the governor's Medicaid working group on Option 3: Expanding Medicaid in Idaho. "You look at the numbers, and this thing, this problem is just ginormous," he told the panel. But, he noted, "We're paying for a lot of these things right now. They're coming out of inefficient systems, they're probably being paid at higher rates. … I don't think we're working as smart as we could."
He noted a reference earlier in the day to Idaho's medical indigency program as a type of "debtors' prison." "There's funding available to help these folks in our community access the care that they need, and it's up to us to figure out how do we utilize what we're paying now … to cover the gap," Baker said. "There are all these holes in the system."
He said, "We all know at the end of the day we're going to have some folks that fall through the holes, no matter what program we put together, but the goal here is to reduce the number of people falling through those cracks. … reduce the cost of their care … and stop requiring other folks in the community" to cover the costs through cost-shifting.
Baker, who noted that he sees patients who are part of this population every day at the Kootenai County community health center where he works, said, "This really can work, and get us closer to the day where we can say, 'Access to health care is not a problem.'" He said, "We have 65 percent of patients in our clinic are uninsured."
He shared data that for Idaho's mentally ill patients, 95 percent could be shifted to an expanded Medicaid, saving $11 million in state general funds. About 75 percent of AIDS Drug Assistance Program clients would qualify for the Medicaid expansion, saving the state about $800,000. Shifting the uninsured population from the state's indigency program to Medicaid would save millions both for the state and for county property taxpayers. "We know cost-shifting is occurring," Baker said. "This should be a no-brainer decision."
He told the panel, "If your neighbor is healthy and they're able to work, your community starts getting better."
Idaho Association of Counties head Dan Chadwick briefed the governor's Medicaid expansion working group on what's been designated Option 2 - Don't expand Medicaid, but redesign Idaho's medical indigency program. "I've talked to my peers around the country and they all scratch their heads," Chadwick said. "There is no other state that does it the way we do it."
He said there's no simple way to redesign Idaho's program - he describes it as a "scraper," that would have to be scrapped and a new system developed from scratch. Possible elements of redesign could include standardizing claims processing and expanding utilization management and medical review, he said. But possible savings would be difficult to estimate - perhaps coming to 2 percent from efficiencies. Because the indigency program is incident-based, not eligibility-based - meaning a person is eligible for benefits only if their medical bills from a particular incident are more than they could pay off in five years - it's very difficult to predict costs, because there's no way to know when someone will get sick or be in an accident. "It's a really unique system," Chadwick said.
"I don't think anyone think there is a silver bullet or a magic wand that's going to change this program," Chadwick said. "Many of the providers and the counties really don't like this system. I think we'd all be happy to see it go away. … It's a difficult system to administer, and we don't know even where to start in terms of capturing the administrative costs for this." You can read my full story here on the program, from the Sept. 9 Spokesman-Review.
The working group is now headed on a lunch break, and will discuss Option 3 - expanding Medicaid - when it reconvenes at 1:15.
Discussing the first option before the Medicaid expansion working group today - no expansion of Medicaid, and no change to the current medical indigency program - state Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong noted, "Clearly no expansion … does not mean no work. There's a significant amount of effort that has to take place." The current indigency program is facing fast-rising costs, he noted, with a significant offsetter of costs, the pre-existing conditions insurance program, or PCIP, expiring in 2014. Current estimates show the indigency program, now at roughly $60 million a year between state and county taxpayer funds, would rise to $92.2 million by 2020.
Armstrong said those estimates are conservative, particularly because Idaho's household income has fallen for the last three years, even as inflation has continued. "So households today simply are not able to support themselves as they have in the past."
Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, a physician, asked if those figures include administrative costs, and the answer was no. "These are the direct benefits paid, and not any of the administrative costs," said Dan Chadwick, head of the Idaho Association of Counties. Armstrong said, "That's a great question. Right now, there are approximately 100 county employees engaged in this process of indigency, and that's a cost we have not thought about until just recently, and needs to be folded into some of these other scenarios." Administrative costs include everything from processing applications to placing liens on applicants' property and collecting on those liens, when possible, to offset benefits paid out. Hospitals, too, are facing significant administrative costs for participating in the program, said Steve Millard of the Idaho Hospital Association.
Chadwick said, "Fifty-three hearings are being held today on indigent claims in our neighboring county. That includes hospital staff, county staff, attorneys, county commissioners, sitting there listening to all these claims. That's a whole lot of time and effort putting in for just one day. It's a big deal. It's a large cost."
Armstrong noted, "Sixty percent of the cases that come before the counties are not accepted." Millard said, "The costs don't go away, just because the state doesn't pay for them, or the indigent program doesn't pay for them." Unreimbursed costs drive up premiums and costs for everyone, he said.
Three options are up for examination at the governor's Medicaid expansion working group's all-day meeting today: Don't expand Medicaid and keep Idaho's current medical indigency/Catastrophic Health Care Fund program as-is; Don't expand Medicaid and redesign the existing indigency/CAT program; and the third option: Expand Medicaid. The population currently served by the state-county indigency program would virtually all be covered by a Medicaid expansion, which would be largely federally funded; the current CAT program is funded entirely with local property taxpayer and state general tax funds, to the tune of roughly $60 million a year.
Though each of the three options will be explored today, the panel won't pick one; that'll come later. First, today, the group is hearing a presentation on the Leavitt Partners report on the potentially eligible population. Still in the works is a report from Milliman, another consulting group, on the costs of each of the options. The working group will meet again Oct. 23 to get the numbers from the Milliman report.
State Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong asked the working group members to keep in mind the advantages and disadvantages of all three options today. Pros and cons of each option will be recorded and put into a spreadsheet for review. When those considerations plus the numbers from the Milliman report are before the working group, Armstrong said, "We will then be moving to recommendations."
Gov. Butch Otter's Medicaid expansion working group meets today from 9 to 3 p.m. at the state capitol, to hear a presentation on a newly completed study and discuss Idaho's options on a possible Medicaid expansion. You can listen live here, and see the agenda here.
In the struggle to fix the nation’s public schools, the old red-state, blue-state idea is looking as dated as Dick and Jane. You can hear the change in the voice of Gov. C. L. Otter, a Republican here in one of the most deeply conservative corners of the country, when he expresses a brotherhood bond with Rahm Emanuel, the Democratic mayor of Chicago and former Obama administration chief of staff. Students at New Plymouth Elementary play outside during recess. “I could empathize with Rahm and what he was going through,” Mr. Otter, better known as “Butch,” said about the recently settled teachers’ strike in Chicago during an interview here in the State Capitol. “It’s not the teachers,” Mr. Otter said, paraphrasing Mr. Emanuel’s tough-guy script from a news conference at the height of the standoff. “It’s the union bosses”/Kirk Johnson, New York Times. More here. (AP file photo: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel)
- H/T: Kevin Richert, Idaho Statesman
Question: Would you call Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel kindred spirits?
On my Facebook wall, state Sen. Shawn Keough commented re: Gov. Butch Otter's "Capital for a Day" program, which visited Nordman in the Priest Lake area Wednesday:
The over 200 Idahoans present at Nordman today appreciated that the Governor and several directors of state agencies as well as 2 other Land Board members took the time to spend with them. There was either and agency director or regional director from almost every state agency there. The attendees had questions throughout the entire day - from roughly 8:15 a.m until 2:00 p.m. Boise is @ 500 miles away from Nordman, and from my seat it looked like people there were glad they had a chance to talk to their elected officials and to heads of or regional directors of state agencies face to face. A rare opportunity for us and many that live here. Too rare in my view. Kudos to the Governor for his effort!
Question: Are you a fan of the "Capital for a Day" program?
Wayne Hammon, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter's budget chief for the past five and a half years, is resigning Sept. 28 to become executive director of the Idaho Associated General Contractors. Hammon, who heads Otter's Division of Financial Management, wrote in his resignation letter, "After serving as DFM administrator longer than any of my predecessors, it is now time for me to move on."
The previous AGC executive director, Mark Dunham, resigned in June after suffering a stroke in January; he had held the position since 2007. The group has more than 600 members, and in 2011 Dunham described it as the state's "premier construction lobby" and "the premier voice for Idaho’s construction industry at every level of government."
Hammon's been a lobbyist before; he served as director of government relations for the National Association of Wheat Growers from 1999 to 2001 after working as a congressional aide to U.S. Sens. Larry Craig and Orrin Hatch. Hammon also headed the USDA Farm Service Agency in Idaho for seven years before joining the Otter Administration. When he left the Wheat Growers, the group's president, Dusty Tallman, said Hammon "made our organization a potent lobbying force." Hammon is the latest in a line of top Otter Administration officials who've left for positions lobbying state government, including two former chiefs of staff.
Hammon, 41, who holds bachelor's and master's degrees in public policy from BYU, said, "I count Butch Otter as a friend, and I'm honored that he trusted me with this job, and I'm happy to have been of service as long as I have. It really is an honor." He said the opening at AGC was a "great opportunity" for him. "We're right at the beginning of a tremendous boom in the economy - I think the recovery is happening," Hammon said. "So that industry's got a very bright future, and I'm excited to be part of that." Late this afternoon, Otter issued a news release about Hammon's departure; click below to read it.
This morning's state Land Board agenda included a recommendation to approve a stipulation to settle the title for some property on the shore of Payette Lake on which a 1942 deed had incorrectly identified the property lines, including part of the lakebed, which the state owns. The owner, who acquired the property in 1981, filed a “quiet title” action, resulting in the stipulation to make the correction. But when it came time to vote, Gov. Butch Otter, who chairs the Land Board, said, “For the record, the chairman will not vote.” Secretary of State Ben Ysursa responded, “I had a hunch.” The property owner? Otter's ex-wife, Gay Simplot.
This morning's state Land Board agenda included a recommendation to approve a stipulation to settle the title for some property on the shore of Payette Lake on which a 1942 deed had incorrectly identified the property lines, including part of the lakebed, which the state owns. The owner, who acquired the property in 1981, filed a "quiet title" action, resulting in the stipulation to make the correction. But when it came time to vote, Gov. Butch Otter, who chairs the Land Board, said, "For the record, the chairman will not vote." Secretary of State Ben Ysursa responded, "I had a hunch."
The property owner? Otter's ex-wife, Gay Simplot.
Idaho state Department of Insurance Director Bill Deal's update to lawmakers this morning on the progress of the governor's health insurance exchange working group included some eye-openers for legislators on the Health Care Task Force, from impacts of a federal exchange on Idaho's current insurance regulations to prospects dimming for a privately run option.
Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, asked, "Do we have any idea yet how much flexibility (Idaho would have), with regard to what we can do differently in a state exchange than in a federal exchange?" Deal responded, "I would say we have some latitude in areas that I think are important to Idaho. An example would be how our producers are allowed to do business with an exchange." He listed an array of things the state would retain in a state-run exchange, including its current regulatory authority over insurance companies and approval of rates and policy provisions. "Are you saying that if we go to a federal exchange, that we will lose the ability to regulate insurance companies in Idaho?" Vick asked. Deal said, "If we go to a federally facilitated exchange, we pretty much lose the authority to regulate the health insurance industry in Idaho."
In response to questions from Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, Deal said there are 782 insurance companies licensed to sell health insurance in Idaho, but only about 192 have done so. Idaho's premiums are among the lowest in the country, Deal said, and the state has the fewest mandates on insurance companies as far as what must be provided in their policies.
Goedde asked about an option he's pressed for, a privately run exchange, or a public-private hybrid, rather than a federally or state-run exchange. Deal responded, "I don't see that there's another option. … The hybrids probably aren't going to meet muster. … At our last meeting we talked a little bit about Utah. The last we heard is their hybrid might not work, and for sure they don't have an individual exchange that will be approved at this particular time the way they're approaching it."
At the working group's next meeting tomorrow, it'll hear from officials from Colorado and Nevada to "get some updates on a fast way to move, if we should decide to," Deal said. With a Nov. 16 deadline looming for Idaho to notify the federal government about its exchange plans, that might be a possible route, "if Idaho could participate with some of the infrastructure that they have in place," Deal said. In October, the group will receive a consultant's cost-analysis study.
The Legislature's 14-member joint Health Care Task Force is meeting all day today at the state Capitol, and first up, it heard an update from state Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong on the progress of the governor's working group examining a possible Medicaid expansion under the national health care reform law. Armstrong said a consultant's study that was expected to be out today has been extended to Sept. 14, "so we can get all the information we needed." He said, "It is a very good document. I've of course seen the draft a number of times. It is very neutral, it is very factual."
The population that would be included in a Medicaid expansion, he said, is made up largely of the working poor. "Sixty percent of those individuals are employed," Armstrong said. "We do know this population has chronic disease, greater than the normal population, and we know what types of ailments that they suffer from, so it's very good data."
Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, noted that if Idaho doesn't expand Medicaid, it still will have "the statutory responsibility under the indigent program for care." Armstrong responded, "Yes, if we don't expand, the existing statutes will stay in place in Idaho as far as how we handle indigent care."
Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, said, "In my opinion we're still paying for those people whether they're going to be in the Medicaid program or not - we're either paying for them through Catastrophic Health Care plan, or through the prison system, or through hospitalization after the fact. So to me, Medicaid expansion is probably the way we need to go to make sure that we get the best outcomes." Armstrong said the study will give the state "some numbers we didn't have before," as to current costs for that population's health care and how it's being paid. "Their cost won't go away," he said. "It is a matter of how do you manage that. … The question is what is it going to cost, and out of which pocket does it come."
Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, task force co-chairman, cautioned that the state should look at the long term costs, 10 or 20 years out, as well as the shorter term. Armstrong said it's difficult to forecast medical inflation rates that far out, and the federal government is saying it will start by paying 100 percent of the cost for the expanded population for the first three years, phasing that down to 90 percent in six years and thereafter. But he raised the possibility that sometime in the future, the federal matching rate might fall to the 70 percent the feds now pay for the rest of Idaho's Medicaid program. "What we're being told by the feds is oh, no, the 90 percent will go on forever. Well, we know forever is not forever, it's as long as somebody's in office," Armstrong said. Cameron said, "It's really easy for us to get caught up in the short-term cost savings. My fear is we'll have the short-term savings, and that will be spent in one way or another, and then 10 years, 20 years from now, not us but colleagues of us will be sitting around the table trying to figure out how to pay for this."
Every Tuesday morning at 9, they file in, some crying, some defiant - all with big medical bills they can't pay, pleading with Kootenai County commissioners for help. "It's at times frustrating, and at times gut-wrenching," said Commissioner Dan Green, "especially when I have people that really need the help and then they don't qualify for the program, and then I see people that we are forced to help that think it's some sort of entitlement." The scene is repeated in each of Idaho's 44 counties, which state law makes the last resort for uninsured patients who can't pay their medical bills.
Idaho's unique system for paying the catastrophic medical bills of indigent patients - which relies solely on local property taxes and the state's general fund - may make it the state that would benefit the most from the expansion of Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act, which would expand the federal-state medical insurance program for the poor to cover the same population that now is thrown on the mercy of county commissioners - and do it almost entirely with federal funds.
If Idaho were to replace its current system with a Medicaid expansion, the state and its county property taxpayers could save hundreds of millions of dollars over the next six years, according to a Spokesman-Review analysis of current and projected costs. But some prominent Idaho politicians already have come out against the move, saying they want no part of "Obamacare." You can read my full story here from Sunday's Spokesman-Review.
A wildfire burns, Friday, Aug. 24, 2012 near Featherville, Idaho. A burnout maneuver has so far been successful in reducing fuels between Featherville and the 187-square-mile wildfire that forced the central Idaho community's evacuation a week ago, officials said Saturday.
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter told reporters last week, after touring the Trinity Ridge and Halstead fires by helicopter, that he backed federal firefighting commanders’ plans for protecting his state.
His support for the plans — putting resources in front of communities, while allowing the fires to burn into wilderness and where past fires have reduced fuels — shows that the West is evolving to accept the new realities of fire.
Like hundreds of others who own second homes in the forest communities along the South Fork of the Boise River, Otter had been up at his cabin in Pine the week before getting it ready for the fire at his door.
“It seems like it takes an incident like this to get people to do what they should have done before,” Otter said.Rocky Barker, Idaho Statesman Full story.
Idaho Statesman reporter Rocky Barker analyzes the evolution of Gov. Butch Otter's position on firefighting efforts in a column today; you can read it here. Baker reports that when Otter took office in 2007, it was the toughest fire season in Idaho since 1910, and he sharply differed with federal authorities' firefighting approach, calling the rules regulating firefighting “The Don’t Book.” Now, Otter is strongly supporting federal firefighting commanders’ plans for protecting his state in this year's tough fire season. "His support for the plans - putting resources in front of communities, while allowing the fires to burn into wilderness and where past fires have reduced fuels - shows that the West is evolving to accept the new realities of fire," Barker writes.
Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― Nine health care-related organizations gave some $40,000 to a state-led effort that Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter hopes boosts the quality of care and reduces costs, especially for low-income Medicaid recipients. Contributors to Otter's Medical Home pilot project included St. Luke's Health System and Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center, which gave $5,000 apiece, and Cambia Health Foundation, which gave $10,000. The two-year pilot project aims to refocus health care in Idaho from responding to acute situations to a model where patients develop a relationship with their doctors to coordinate preventative care ― before emergencies arise. Otter first announced this effort two years ago, and his office is taking applications from medical providers for this first two-year phase. His office said selections of up to 15 providers will be done in September.
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter will join National Guard and state Homeland Security officials on a helicopter tour of wildfires burning in the Pine and Stanley areas today, along with some on-the-ground stops; he'll then meet with reporters and share what he's seen. It's an issue that's personal for Otter, who many years ago was a wildland firefighter himself, and who spent last Thursday, Friday and Saturday at his log cabin in Pine, clearing pine needles, downed branches and other flammables away and removing keepsakes from the cabin as the huge Trinity Ridge fire burned toward the small communities of Featherville and Pine.
Otter's had the riverfront cabin since April of 2001; it was a favorite getaway during his three terms in Congress and a jumping-off point for hunting trips; he has fond memories of family Thanksgivings there in years past, though he's had little chance to get there in recent years. "I'm ashamed to say that it has been a good two years, except for this last weekend," he said today. While Otter and First Lady Lori Otter were at the cabin, they removed keepsakes including a letter from then-President Ronald Reagan that Otter had framed and kept on the wall. "We were able to get all the pine needles and pine cones, all that kind of stuff cleared out," he said.
While he was there, he also attended three public meetings at a local senior center. "The crews just came in and did a tremendous job of planning, explaining to us … why we should leave," Otter said. "When we left, we told them, 'We're gone,' so they didn't have to worry about us being there."
It's a log cabin, but Otter said he's glad it has a metal roof, given the fire danger. Asked how smoky the air was during his visit, Otter said, "Oh, it was awful, it was awful."
While he was working around the cabin, a news crew from KTVB-TV caught up with him; he said with a chuckle that after footage aired of him operating a chainsaw, he got a call from Valley Tool, where he buys and repairs his saws, saying, "Hey, get in here and get a pair of safety goggles!" Otter said sheepishly that he had the goggles; he just hadn't put them on.
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has issued a statewide disaster declaration due to wildfires, allowing Idaho National Guard troops to be mobilized to help fight fires burning across the state. The declaration, signed yesterday, is for the next 30 days, but notes that it could be extended. "There is an imminent threat to life and property as a result of wildfires within the state of Idaho," the governor's declaration states. "Dry fuels, lightning, high winds and smoke have created this perilous situation."
Rob Feeley, public affairs officer for the Idaho state Bureau of Homeland Security, said the declaration is allowing National Guard troops and equipment to be mobilized starting today. They're headed to the Trinity Ridge, Halstead and Mustang Complex fires, including ground transportation to help move supplies and personnel, traffic control crews, and standby helicopters for medical evacuation.
"This is because the fires around Idaho are having trouble securing the resources that they need to be able to fight the fires," Feeley said, "because there are so many fires going on across the nation, across the western United States, that some of the things they need they just can't get, for example helicopters. Every helicopter that meets their safety inspection requirements is already contracted."
Otter also signed a separate disaster declaration yesterday for Elmore County at that county's request, to allow the county to receive FEMA funds for structure protection at Pine and Featherville from the Trinity Ridge fire. The federal fire management assistance grant is for "when the situation is dire enough there are houses, businesses at risk," Feeley said. The federal grant will pay 75 percent of the costs for structure protection there; the resources targeted on that fire now are for wildland firefighting. Several city fire departments from throughout the state of Idaho are now mobilizing and heading there to protect the towns.
For the dog days of summer, there was a fair amount of news happening in Boise last week while I was off on vacation. Here are some highlights:
* Public records revealed that the state has sent another $15,760 payment to the private law firm it hired to defend the state Transportation Board against a wrongful-firing lawsuit from former state Transportation Director Pam Lowe. Lowe, the department's first female chief, recently settled her lawsuit, which charged both gender discrimination and political pressure; the settlement hasn't yet been disclosed. The state's legal bill to the law firm of Holland & Hart now adds up to $556,239.
* U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Candy Dale sided with Idaho Gov. Butch Otter in a lawsuit challenging the federal listing of slickspot peppergrass as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The court decision requires the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to revisit the issue; a jubilant Otter said he was "encouraged" that the court agreed the federal decision was "flawed." The plant, a native desert flower found only in small parts of southern Idaho, was declared threatened in 2009 despite several years of efforts by the Otter Administration to develop a conservation plan. The primary threats to the rare flower are trampling by livestock, off-road vehicles, agriculture and other human activity.
* The Idaho Department of Lands announced that fiscal year 2012 saw a record timber harvest of 330 million board feet of timber from state endowment trust lands; that's about 35 percent of the total timber harvest in the state, though state-managed forests are only about 5 percent of Idaho's forest lands, and it's 150 percent of the five-year average for state timber harvest. However, it's only 98.5 percent of the five-year average for state timber harvest receipts; that's due to lower timber prices that have dropped significantly in the last five years.
* An archaeological dig by the University of Idaho in the heart of downtown Boise found artifacts dating back 130 years in an old well discovered on the Basque Block; items recovered included an intact decorative bottle of Gilt Edge ladies' shoe polish, marbles and jacks, and the head of a porcelain doll.
* A state prison instructor was arrested for having sexual contact with a prisoner, a felony; the female instructor taught at both the South Boise Women's Correctional Center and the South Idaho Correctional Institution, a minimum-security prison for men south of Boise.
* Boise Police raided six massage parlors in a sweep resulting in charges ranging from prostitution to licensing violations.
* State tax revenues for July came in 1.5 percent below forecast, $3.4 million down. All but one category, miscellaneous revenue, missed the forecast, which called for the month's general tax revenues to rise by 6.4 percent over last year's July revenues; instead, it was 1.5 percent lower.
* Idaho has seen an increase in fatal motorcycle accidents, with preliminary data showing 13 motorcycle deaths in the state so far, compared to six at the same time in 2011. Six of the 13 were in July. Most of those who died were men over age 40; those who went through the state-sponsored motorcycle skills training, STAR, or Skills Training Advantage for Riders, had a 79 percent lower risk of being involved in a crash.
* Olympic cycling gold medalist Kristin Armstrong was welcomed home to Boise by a crowd of more than 1,000 at a group bike ride and celebration on Saturday, at which Gov. Butch Otter proclaimed it "Kristin Armstrong Day" in the state, and Boise Mayor Dave Bieter declared Armstrong's almost-2-year-old son Lucas honorary mayor. It was also Armstrong's 39th birthday.