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Tuesday, December 10, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Eye On Boise

Otter ‘a little disappointed’ but rules out special session; ‘Close the Gap’ group ‘heartbroken for the 78K’

Idaho state Capitol (Betsy Z. Russell)
Idaho state Capitol (Betsy Z. Russell)

Here’s my full story from spokesman.com on Gov. Butch Otter’s reactions today to the newly completed Idaho legislative session, in which he said he was “a little disappointed” state lawmakers took no action to close the state’s health coverage gap, but he won’t call a special session or issue an executive order, instead pledging to work with the Legislature’s new task force on the issue between now and next year.

Close the Gap Idaho, a coalition of medical, civic and advocacy groups that has been pressing for action on the issue, posted on its website, “Now we have to wait at least another year. We are grateful for the courage and compassion of many legislators, and for the many thousands of Idahoans who contacted their legislators to show their support for Idahoans in the gap. But we are heartbroken for the 78,000 Idahoans who still do not have access to health care.”

Lauren Necochea, director of Idaho Voices for Children, a coalition member, said, “Most of the Idahoans in the gap are working at least one job and most have children at home. The waiver approach would have created a path to actual coverage for Idaho families.” The waiver bill that passed the Idaho Senate but then died in the House on the session’s final day addressed only those who make less than 100 percent of the federal poverty level. “It is urgent that Idaho closes the coverage gap,” Necochea said. “The lives of Idahoans and the economic stability of our families are under threat until we address this critical issue.”

BOISE – Idaho Gov. Butch Otter said Monday that he was “a little disappointed” state lawmakers took no action to close the state’s health coverage gap, but said he won’t call a special session or issue an executive order, and instead will work with the Legislature’s new task force on the issue between now and next year.

“A year ago we weren’t even talking about this sort of thing,” Otter said at a Capitol news conference called to give his reaction to the just-concluded Idaho legislative session. “What we did get was we got two ideas from separate ends of the rotunda, and what we’ve got to do now in the interim is bring those two ideas together, so that we do have an Idaho solution.”

House Speaker Scott Bedke, who along with other GOP legislative leaders joined Otter for the news conference, said, “There is acknowledgment that we need to do something different from what we’re doing. What that looks like, the House feel strongly that there needs to be a legislative component to that solution going forward. Whatever the waiver we may or may not ask for, I think we need to be in the middle of that.”

In the final days of the session last week, the Senate overwhelmingly approved legislation directing the state to apply for a waiver from federal authorities to tap Medicaid expansion funds as a block grant, and use it to provide a new managed-care plan to the 78,000 Idahoans who now make too little to qualify for subsidized insurance through Idaho’s health insurance exchange, but too much to qualify for Medicaid. A day later, the House rejected the bill on a party-line vote, with all majority Republicans opposing it.

Instead, Bedke announced he’ll appoint a joint working group of lawmakers to work over the summer and fall to find a solution for next year’s Legislature to consider.

Otter, who over the last three years appointed two separate task forces that studied the issue at length before recommending accepting the federal funds, said, “This is a problem, and it’s a problem we’re going to continue to struggle with, and we’re going to continue to work on. Because those who would suggest that the Republicans in the Legislature don’t care about those 78,000 are dead wrong - we do care. We just are trying to get a solution and not make false promises.”

The governor, in response to questions from reporters, said he may have erred by only appointed a few state lawmakers to his two Medicaid Redesign Working Groups. “Mostly they were not made up of those people that could vote on what they had generated,” Otter said, “and that’s a pretty important aspect. And so that’s why I said I’m looking forward to working with the speaker and the folks that he appoints, and they can call on all those experts that wrote up my two reports.”

“I counted more on the experts than I counted votes,” Otter said, “because I thought, you know, once we can see a clear path, we’ll just do the right thing. I think it’s time that we included those votes on those working committees.”

Asked about testimony provided to the Legislature this year by Dr. Kenneth Krell, director of critical care at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center in Idaho Falls, who estimated that 1,000 Idahoans have died prematurely in the past three years for lack of health care and predicted more than 300 more deaths in the next year if Idaho doesn’t act, Otter said he wasn’t convinced.

One of Krell’s patients, Jenny  Steinke of Idaho Falls, died from complications from asthma; she lacked insurance to cover what would have been relatively simple treatment earlier.

“The idea that people are dying because they don’t have health care in Idaho, I don’t totally agree with that,” Otter said. “I think the doctor was off-base. I see plenty of people that die every day in hospitals and they have insurance, and they’re in the hospital, but they still die. If it were easy, I guess we would have accomplished it a long time ago.”

Bedke said, “Hyperbole and horror stories, while they’re useful to a point, I think that the House has heard those. And you have a firm commitment from the House of Representatives that we want to do something on this issue.”

He said it will be a “dance.” “This is going to take four to tango here,” Bedke said. “It’s going to take the House and the Senate and the governor’s office, and CMS. And we’re going to try to craft something that works.”

CMS is the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency that approves waivers related to states’ use of federal funds for health care services. The federal Affordable Care Act originally envisioned all states expanding Medicaid to serve their lowest-income residents, while those with slightly higher incomes could use their state insurance exchanges. A U.S. Supreme Court decision made Medicaid expansion optional for states; 31 states, including Washington, have exercised the option, but Idaho hasn’t.

Close the Gap Idaho, a coalition of medical, civic and advocacy groups that has been pressing for action on the issue, posted on its website, “Now we have to wait at least another year. We are grateful for the courage and compassion of many legislators, and for the many thousands of Idahoans who contacted their legislators to show their support for Idahoans in the gap. But we are heartbroken for the 78,000 Idahoans who still do not have access to health care.”

               Lauren Necochea, director of Idaho Voices for Children, a coalition member, said, “Most of the Idahoans in the gap are working at least one job and most have children at home. The waiver approach would have created a path to actual coverage for Idaho families.” The waiver bill that passed the Idaho Senate addressed only those who make less than 100 percent of the federal poverty level.

               “It is urgent that Idaho closes the coverage gap,” she said. “The lives of Idahoans and the economic stability of our families are under threat until we address this critical issue.”



Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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