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Eye on Boise: Legislators in Congress split on budget vote

Betsy Russell (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

BOISE – Idaho’s all-GOP congressional delegation split down the middle late last week as the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed a continuing resolution to fund the government – avoiding a government shutdown by just two days. Sen. Mike Crapo and Rep. Mike Simpson voted in favor of the measure; Rep. Raul Labrador and Sen. Jim Risch voted against it.

Their reasons? Crapo had worked to get a significant veterans funding measure included in it, along with provisions regarding wildfires and the Idaho National Laboratory. Simpson lauded the full-year military appropriation the bill included, including reforms and improvements for the Veterans Administration.

Risch said he just doesn’t like the overall spending levels and votes against all such bills. And Labrador issued a blistering statement, saying he’s “angry” and blasting his own party’s leadership.

“I’m angry because we weren’t permitted to do our work,” Labrador wrote. “Rather than complete our most basic job – passing spending bills – leadership sent us out on a seven-week summer recess. Congress should have stayed to meet its responsibilities, but now we’re taking another extended break. We appear headed for more of the same when we return in December for a lame-duck session, where the unholy alliance will continue to blow through the limits in the 2011 Budget Control Act in order to increase both military and domestic spending. If we don’t mend our ways, our legacy to our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be economic ruin.”

The House vote was 342-85; the Senate vote was 72-26. The 10-week stopgap spending bill includes $1.1 billion in long-delayed funding to fight the Zika virus; $500 million in flood relief for Louisiana and other flood-stricken states; the full fiscal 2017 appropriation for military construction and veterans; and continuing fiscal 2016 levels for remaining government programs through Dec. 9.

During the debate in the House, House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., said, “It’s not perfect, but it ensures we meet our nation’s critical needs. At this point, it is what we must do to fulfill our congressional responsibility, to keep the lights on in our government.”

Risch, in comments to an eastern Idaho radio station the morning after the vote, said he and Crapo rarely split their votes, but he fully understood why it happened this time.

“Mike fought really, really hard to get some good stuff in there,” Risch said on KID Radio, “and one of the things you can’t do is deal with the people that are constructing the legislation, fight hard to get what you want in there, then say, ‘Oh, thank you for putting it in, now I’m going to vote no on it.’ You just can’t do that. I mean, you can do it once. But you’ll never get away with it again. And so as a result of that, Mike felt really compelled to vote for it, and he was right on that.”

It has been more than 20 years since Congress passed all the required appropriations bills in time, before the start of the next fiscal year Oct. 1.

Panel urged to close coverage gap

The Idaho Legislature’s 10-member working group on health care alternatives listened to several hours of impassioned testimony last week. The group is considering solutions to the 78,000 Idahoans who now fall into a coverage gap – making too much to qualify for the state’s very limited Medicaid program but not enough to qualify for subsidized health insurance on the state insurance exchange.

The panel hasn’t reached any decisions; it meets again on Oct. 24. Of the 39 people who testified, only one opposed accepting federal Medicaid expansion funds to close the coverage gap, saying the move would encourage dependence on government. Here are some of the comments from the hearing:

Dr. Jeremy Monroe, of Pocatello, told of seeing a patient in terrible pain who was making her third emergency room visit in a week. She had gallbladder disease and needed surgery. She had been referred to a surgeon on both previous visits, but she had no way to pay for surgery. “I remember thinking at the time, ‘I hope that she’s sick enough for the surgeon to take it out today.’ And I caught myself feeling very bad that I was hoping she would be more sick. … Her gallbladder was worse, but still not an emergency.”

He said, “It’s very frustrating as a doctor to see patients, to try and figure out what’s wrong with them, arrange for follow-up, but know that they will not be able to be seen for follow-up.” That patient’s emergency room visits cost thousands of dollars, he said, and she still wasn’t helped. He urged lawmakers to close the coverage gap.

Samantha Joseph, a social worker who provides case management at a community health center, said many of her patients are working and fall into the coverage gap. Many have serious and persistent mental illness and have no coverage, she said. “These are not people who want to live a life of leisure, taking money and not contributing to society. These are people who have worked hard all their lives and now they’re sick.”

She added, “I want to live in an Idaho that makes vulnerable people believe they will be able to get something more than minimum-wage pay with no benefits. … We are already paying for this health care in a myriad of other ways. People without insurance don’t get primary or preventive care. They ignore it and go to the emergency room when they can’t take it anymore. … We are paying federal taxes but not reaping the benefits of matching federal funds.”

Melody Hayden, her voice breaking, told the lawmakers, “I just want you to reach into your hearts and know that this affects everyone and we are all very important. And because we don’t make enough money doesn’t mean that we should die.”

Before the public testimony, the lawmakers heard several presentations from presenters affiliated with the Idaho Freedom Foundation, which opposes Medicaid expansion, who urged them instead to just encourage charity care in Idaho.

But when lawmakers questioned Dr. Leanne Rousseau, of Post Falls, who was among those offering testimony in the afternoon, about whether charity care could fill the gap, she said no.

“Historically, in the past in our community, the community’s been very generous,” Rousseau said, listing a couple of examples of surgeries performed for free. “However, that’s sporadic,” she said. “It’s difficult and sporadic to access. … It’s unreliable by its very nature.”

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