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Eye On Boise

Risch: Health care changes must be bipartisan

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, fields a question from Amber LaBelle of Garden City during a small business event in downtown Boise on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017. (Betsy Z. Russell)
Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, fields a question from Amber LaBelle of Garden City during a small business event in downtown Boise on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017. (Betsy Z. Russell)

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By Betsy Z. Russell

BOISE – Idaho Sen. Jim Risch declared Thursday that health care reform can’t succeed with just one party backing it, saying it must be bipartisan.

Risch, a conservative Republican, said no major social program in American history has succeeded with just one party backing it, and he said that’s at the root of problems with Obamacare, which he called “an abysmal failure” after being enacted with support only from congressional Democrats.

“We’re working at it,” he said. “This is not easy stuff – it is very difficult to do.”

Risch’s comments came as he spoke at a small business event co-sponsored by Facebook, Zions Bank and the Idaho Small Business Development Center, offering free training for Boise-area small businesses on using Facebook tools; Facebook paid for the free session. Several members of the audience pressed Risch about health care – saying they can’t survive in small business without reliable health care for their families and employees, and criticizing his voting record on the issue thus far.

Risch said he and the people asking the questions all want the same things. “I want to see affordable health care that’s available to every American that wants it and needs it, and it’s difficult,” Risch said.

When Amber LaBelle, a veterinary opthamologist from Garden City who’s contemplating opening her own clinic, pressed Risch on whether he’d “reach across the aisle … so that I can provide health care for my daughters as part of my engagement in small business,” the audience erupted into applause and cheers.

“Great question,” Risch responded. “I’m on the free-market side. The other side is more government-oriented. That doesn’t mean there isn’t middle ground.”

Citing the passage of Obamacare, he said, “That was wrong. This one should not be done on a purely partisan basis.” He added, “We have reached across the aisle – they have absolutely refused to engage.”

But asked afterward about a bipartisan group of senators who have been working on a plan to stabilize health care markets, Risch said, “They’re making progress. I’m cautiously optimistic – let me say very cautiously optimistic, because it is so difficult. These people are doing good work and I’m hoping that we can reach a solution.”

Risch said he wouldn’t join the group himself because “I’m not on the committees that deal with health care.”

He also lauded Idaho’s state health insurance exchange as the “best in America,” saying, “We Idahoans did it – the federal government didn’t do it for us, we did it.”

As reforms are crafted, he said, “The states ought to have a much freer hand,” and “we need more free market into it.”

LaBelle, who was at a table in the front and popped up to ask her question even before Risch had finished his prepared remarks, saying, “Sen. Risch, Sen. Risch!” said she’s visited Risch’s office but hasn’t felt like her concerns about health care were heard. “I feel really frustrated,” she said, because Risch hasn’t held town-hall meetings. “I have to come to him.”

Risch, who took just two questions from the audience before organizers cut him off to begin the Facebook business tools program, spoke with several audience members as he left the stage, and took questions from reporters afterward. He said health care is a frequent topic that comes up when he speaks with people and groups in Idaho, though perspectives vary depending on the group.

When Congress returns from its August recess after Labor Day, he said, “There’s a lot of us still want to see something done with health care.”

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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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