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Opinion >  Column

Eye on Boise: Advocacy group calls for expanding Idaho Medicaid

BOISE – The Idaho Community Action Network, a statewide nonprofit advocacy group with more than 2,000 members, issued a report last week calling strongly for Idaho to expand its Medicaid program to cover the working poor. That also was the unanimous recommendation of a 14-member working group, appointed by Gov. Butch Otter, which studied the issue for months.

“It’s the right choice for Idaho – it’s going to save us money, and it’s going to save lives,” said Terri Sterling, the group’s organizing director. “When you think about the families this is impacting right now, it’s very sad across the state. … I have interviewed lots of these families, and it’s so heartbreaking and heart-wrenching to hear some of these stories.”

ICAN’s report, “Invest in a Healthy Idaho,” calls a Medicaid expansion “a prescription for ending the drain on state and county resources and creating financial stability for Idaho’s patients.” It highlights the stories of several Idahoans who lack health insurance, including Aaron Howington, who works, but much of his income goes to child support payments; he lives in a camper in the back of his pickup truck, can’t afford health insurance and makes too much to qualify for Medicaid. “Without good health, I may not be able to continue working,” he said. “I don’t know what I would do then. The Medicaid expansion would allow me to get the care that I need to stay healthy and keep my job.”

Under national health care reform, states have the option of expanding Medicaid, the state-federal program that provides health insurance to the poor and disabled, to cover the working poor. That expansion would be done largely at federal expense.

A decision from Otter and state lawmakers is pending.

An expansion would save Idaho hundreds of millions over the coming years, because the state currently covers the catastrophic medical bills of indigent residents entirely with county property taxes and state general funds.

Alecia Clements, an ICAN state board member, said, “I have good insurance, thanks to God, but a lot of Idahoans don’t.” If Idaho doesn’t expand the program, she said, “It’s going to cost us anyway, even more – I hope that our legislators understand that.”

ICAN was formed in 1999 through a merger of the Idaho Citizens Network, an advocacy group focusing on the concerns of low-income residents, and the Idaho Hunger Action Council.

Leadership fights

House Republican leadership battles mostly are fought behind closed doors – that’s where the vote is taken, in a Dec. 5 caucus – but this year’s are increasingly going public, with Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, publicly announcing last week that he’s challenging current House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale.

Now, Rep. Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, has announced his candidacy for majority caucus chair, the No. 4 position in the leadership team, on his Facebook page. Hartgen also announced that his rivals for the post are Reps. Christy Perry, R-Nampa, and John Vander Woude, R-Nampa.

In addition, he reported that Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, is challenging Rep. Mike Moyle, R-Star, for majority leader; and three candidates, Reps. Brent Crane, Lynn Luker and Jeff Thompson, are running for assistant majority leader.

Delay on exchanges

Otter announced Friday that he’s decided to delay a decision on how to proceed on a health insurance exchange in Idaho. Friday had been the deadline, but that’s now been extended until mid-December. “I have my working group’s recommendation, and I have been listening carefully to stakeholders and citizens about this important choice,” Otter said. “This extension gives us more time to get answers from HHS about what the federal requirements will be.”

Otter noted that he consulted with other GOP governors at a Republican Governors Association meeting in Las Vegas this week from which he returned Friday. “I don’t want us buying a pig in a poke,” he said, “so with this extension I’m hoping we’ll get answers to the questions and concerns we’re hearing from legislators and the public.”

Jobless rate drops

Idaho’s unemployment rate continued to fall in October, dropping another tenth of a percentage point to 7 percent, the lowest level in 3 1/2 years, the Idaho Department of Labor reports. That was nearly a full percentage point below the national unemployment rate, which rose a tenth to 7.9 percent in October.

Things aren’t as good in North Idaho, however. The Coeur d’Alene labor market came in at 8.7 percent unemployment in October, and the Grangeville area at 8.8 percent, though both had dropped from September’s rates of 9.0 and 8.9 percent. That compares to 6.7 percent in the Boise-Nampa area, 5.9 percent in the Burley-Twin Falls area, 6.7 percent in the Pocatello area and 5.9 percent in Idaho Falls.

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