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Idaho candidates respond to health plan fall out

In this Jan. 11, 2016 photo, the Idaho state Capitol building is shown in Boise, Idaho. (Otto Kitsinger / Associated Press)
In this Jan. 11, 2016 photo, the Idaho state Capitol building is shown in Boise, Idaho. (Otto Kitsinger / Associated Press)
By Kimberlee Kruesi Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho – Lt. Gov. Brad Little, a Republican candidate running to be Idaho’s next governor, has gone on the defensive after spending months campaigning on a plan that has since been deemed legally dubious by the federal government.

Earlier this year, Little joined Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and Idaho Department of Insurance Director Dean Cameron in announcing a plan to allow health insurance plans that don’t meet Affordable Care Act standards.

However, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma issued a letter Thursday saying that the ACA remains the law and her agency has a duty to enforce it. Under the proposal, Idaho would permit insurers to offer plans that don’t meet all of the act’s regulations, such as by charging people more based on their health history, or by not covering some health needs like maternity care.

Almost immediately, Little’s involvement was noticed by political opponents as Little’s campaign began releasing mailers, social media blasts and television ads touting the plan with the intent of wooing Republican voters.

The “state-based” health plan has become one of the top issues pushed out by the Republican’s campaign, but also one heavily criticized by some that Little has used his political office to advance his campaign.

“Idaho certainly doesn’t need D.C. liberals telling us how to run health care, so I decided to do something about it,” Little said in a recent television ad. “This January, Gov. Otter and I ended Obamacare’s monopoly in Idaho.”

But in the Thursday letter, Verma said such a move would force the federal agency to enforce the provisions of the Affordable Care Act on behalf of the state. That could include pulling regulatory authority from the Idaho Department of Insurance and fining insurance companies $100 a day for every person they insure on a noncompliant plan.

Little responded Friday by downplaying the warning in the CMS letter.

“I believe Idaho is following the intent of the law by offering quality health insurance,” Little said in a prepared statement. “We want to offer more choices and affordability to all Idahoans.”

GOP opponent Tommy Ahlquist, a former physician turned Boise developer, responded to the CMS letter by reiterating prior accusations that Little and Otter’s plan was a campaign stunt and was never designed to fix health care in Idaho.

“So much for the Lt. Governor’s fundraising claim of `ending Obamacare,“’ said David Johnston, Ahlquist’s campaign manager in a statement on Thursday. “Tommy will use his experience as an ER doctor to work closely with the Trump administration to get rid of Obamacare once and for all.”

Meanwhile, Democratic gubernatorial candidate A.J. Balukoff said Friday he was thrilled that “Otter’s `crazypants illegal’ plan to sell skimpy health care coverage to Idahoans is dead.”

Balukoff added he also hoped the letter meant that Little’s “taxpayer-funded campaign trips to sell these illegal plans are over,” arguing that Little’s involvement on the plan has been inappropriate on several levels.

U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador, also running for the open gubernatorial seat, and Democratic candidate Paulette Jordan did not respond to email requests for comment.

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