Medicaid Expansion Dies in Idaho Session But Will Come Back to Life

by | March 29, 2016

By Bill Dentzer

Gov. Butch Otter Monday ruled out calling a special legislative session or taking action on his own to advance an Idaho-designed, federally-funded health care program for 78,000 poor and uninsured Idahoans.

Instead, he said his administration would work with a forthcoming interim legislative committee that will study how Idaho should proceed, likely via a federal waiver that would permit the state to implement an alternate approach to Medicaid expansion to cover the uninsured group. Expansion of Medicaid is a component of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, nicknamed Obamacare.

The yet-to-be-formed panel, announced Friday after the House voted against giving the administration the go-ahead to seek the waiver, would comprise House and Senate lawmakers of both parties, supported by the administration and in dialogue with the federal government.

The governor made the comments at an end-of-session press briefing attended by leaders of the Republican House and Senate majorities. The group of lawmakers pointed to various successes of the session, notably on education and schools funding, but were pressed on the failure of the Legislature to take more immediate and substantive action on health care for the gap group.

The governor said he would honor a commitment not to act unilaterally on Medicaid expansion, saying that similar "contentiously made" executive orders "don't work out too well." He said he knew of "no reason at this moment" to call the Legislature back into session to take up the question.

But he added that Obamacare was what "started this fight" and "started the problem," and said that the November elections and the new year would bring a different president, Supreme Court and Congress, suggesting that Republicans are still hoping that the change of administrations in Washington might bring a course change on health care.

"Those who would suggest that the Republicans in the Legislature don't care about those 78,000 people are dead wrong. They do care," Otter said, responding to a question. "We're just trying to get a solution that we can live with and not make false promises."

Otter has convened two working groups of health experts to look at the state's options on expanding Medicaid, in 2012 and 2014. He said the new legislative panel "can call on all those experts."

"I counted more on the experts than I counted votes, because I thought once we can see a clear path, we'll just do the right thing," the governor said. "I think it's time that we included those votes on those working committees."

The committee proposal came Friday from House Speaker Scott Bedke as the House concluded its business for the year. The speaker Monday defended the progress lawmakers made on the issue this year.

"We weren't even talking about this last year. We were not even talking about this in January," Bedke said. The action lawmakers took, he said, reflects an "acknowledgement that we need to do something different than what we're doing" on health care.

"What that looks like, the House feels strongly that there needs to be a legislative component to that solution going forward," he said. "I think we need to count it as great progress that from an issue that we weren't talking about, and said that we were not going to take up, that we have, in a very meaningful way."

Otter, Bedke and Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill each pointed to action on education by the Legislature this year, achieved with little dissension or debate. The Legislature authorized a 7.4 percent increase in K-12 spending totaling $1.58 billion, including funding for the second year of teacher salary increases and an elementary school literacy program, in addition to nearly $280 million for higher education.

"All in all I think the legislature did a tremendous job," the governor said.

Hill, mentioning education, said the Legislature "did some great things and they went smoothly, things that we have struggled with in the past."

"What failure we may have had those are opportunities to begin again," he said.

(c)2016 The Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho)