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Eye On Boise

Idaho Rep. Simpson speaks out on health care bill, as do protesters…

Idaho 2nd District Rep.  Mike Simpson speaks Monday, May 15, 2017, at the Idaho Healthcare Summit at the Boise Centre. (Betsy Z. Russell / SR)
Idaho 2nd District Rep. Mike Simpson speaks Monday, May 15, 2017, at the Idaho Healthcare Summit at the Boise Centre. (Betsy Z. Russell / SR)

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By Betsy Z. Russell

BOISE - While vigorously defending the GOP House-passed health care bill, Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson told the Idaho Healthcare Summit that he wouldn’t have voted for it if that was what would have actually become law. Instead, Simpson said, it’s the first step in a long process he contends is needed to get to a bipartisan solution on how to fix the nation’s health care system.

“There has never been a major American program – except Obamacare – that has passed on a partisan vote,” Simpson said. “Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid – all of those were bipartisan votes, so that both parties have a stake in ‘em.”

He expressed regret that House GOP leaders pressed forward with a health care bill that attracted no support from across the aisle, just as the previous Democratic Congress did when it passed Obamacare. “This is something that some of us warned leadership about,” Simpson said. “We’re trying to do this all on our own. We oughta ignore whether we’re Republicans or Democrats and think of ourselves as Americans first and try to solve this health care problem. And we can do it.”

That comment was greeted by loud applause.

“It was interesting presiding over the debate,” Simpson told about 275 health care stakeholders, from physicians to educators to CEOs and company human resource directors on Monday morning. “If you listened to Democrats during this debate, and of course I was presiding, I kinda had to – I listened to both sides – if you listened to Democrats, you would think that Republicans don’t care about old people, young people or sick people. And if you listened to Republicans, you would think that if we passed this bill we had reached Nirvana. Neither of those are true.”

Simpson said in his view, Obamacare is failing, largely because in many states, insurers are fleeing exchanges while premiums and deductibles are rising. He noted that that hasn’t happened in Idaho. “Idaho frankly has done a great job with their health care exchange,” he said. “It’s been one of the models in the country. It gives me faith that Idaho can design a health care plan for its citizens that actually works and is better.”

The Idaho Healthcare Summit was organized by the Post Register newspaper in Idaho Falls; it is the third annual summit, and the first held in Boise. The two-day session runs through Tuesday and features an array of sessions on how to improve health care in Idaho. “The whole idea is what can we do while we’re waiting for the government to do whatever it’s going to do,” said Roger Plothow, Post Register publisher.

Simpson, the summit’s lead-off speaker, who both spoke and took questions from the audience, was pressed on his support for the just-passed House bill. “If I thought it was going to be the bill that became law, I would’ve voted against it,” he said. “Because there are some problems with it. I would be the first to admit it.”

But Simpson said his many years in Congress have taught him that there’s strategy – or “strategery, a term I learned from George W.” – to accomplishing things in Congress.

“While there are provisions in the health care bill that passed the House that I thought should have been stronger, some of ‘em probably shouldn’t have been there – the Freedom Caucus actually made the bill worse, rather than better – … there are Republicans that don’t want any health care bill at all. They want us completely out. They want a straight repeal of Obamacare, that’s it, squat, nothing else.” And there are Democrats who only will support a move to a single-payer health care system, Simpson said.

“Those are the extremes. The question is can the majority of us in the middle solve this problem? I think we can.”

Simpson, a dentist, recalled that when he first started practicing years ago in southern Idaho, only 10 percent of his patients had insurance, and the rest paid cash. “We used to get calls all the time: ‘What do you charge for a set of dentures?’ ‘What do you charge for a crown?’”

“That doesn’t happen any more,” he said. “Now everybody’s on insurance, and it doesn’t make that much difference to their pocketbook whether they go to someone who charges $500 for a crown or someone who charges $600 for a crown.”

He said Republicans want to find ways to use market forces and competition to drive down health care costs. “That’s called capitalism,” he said. “And then let individuals decide what coverage suits their needs, not the government deciding what you need for insurance – letting individuals decide what they need for their health care coverage. That’s called freedom.”

“And realizing that no matter how low you drive health care costs, no matter how much you reduce it, there will still be people who cannot afford it, that are going to need assistance. That’s called compassion.”

Simpson said the GOP wants to “return power to the states, so that you can decide what works in Idaho, what fits Idaho. … How can we develop the products that Idahoans need and will buy? Ultimately, that’s what we’re trying to do. Will the House-passed bill do that? I don’t know. But you’ve got to remember: The House-passed bill is the first, and I repeat just the first, step in a long, long process.”

Next, he said, the Senate will write its own bill, and “it will be substantially different than the House bill. … And then we will go to conference and see if we can work out the differences between the House and the Senate and come out with a bill that can get 51 votes in the Senate and 218 votes in the House.”

Responding to questions about projections that millions of Americans would lose health coverage under the House bill, Simpson said that’s in part because Congress is trying to develop the bill under “reconciliation” rules – which would allow a bill to pass the Senate with just 51, rather than 60, votes. Under those rules, he said, “They can only do so much. It has to affect the budget. It can’t make policy changes. So we couldn’t do the entire replacement that we want to do with reconciliation. Which creates some problems,” including unfavorable scoring by the congressional Office of Management and Budget.

“Whatever we do, there is legislation that will follow up that needs to be done,” he said. He listed items ranging from allowing association health care plans for large associations like Realtors; to increased use of health savings accounts; to negotiating drug prices.

“In my heart of hearts, I want every Idahoan to have health care coverage, I want every American to have health care coverage,” the 9th-term GOP congressman and former Idaho House speaker said. “How do we get there? And do we allow individuals to make that decision for themselves, what kind of coverage they want? Some people may just want catastrophic coverage.”

“We need to try to cover as many people in the country as we can that want health care coverage,” Simpson said, saying there will always be some who won’t want it. “It’s hard to convince young people that you too can get in a motorcycle accident,” he said. “But part of it is getting the cost down to where people can afford it, which is what we’re trying to do.”

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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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