While nine U.S. Supreme Court justices are scrutinizing the federal health care law, 105 Idaho legislators and one governor have done one of those things they do well.
They are ducking a tough issue. In this case, the creation of a health insurance exchange.
Remember the health insurance exchange? This was one of those issues that was supposed to keep the Legislature busy until adjournment. The idea never even got a hearing — partly because the Supreme Court gave some legislators a perfectly handy excuse.
When lawmakers arrived in Boise in January, they also knew the Supreme Court would spend the last week of March hearing oral arguments over the law some Republicans prefer to call “Obamacare.” And that became one of the arguments for doing nothing. Why establish a health insurance exchange, as required under the federal law, if the Supreme Court might declare the entire law unconstitutional?
Well, fine, except for this. Thanks to the politics of avoidance, this Legislature will have done nothing to address the needs of individuals and small businesses that cannot find or afford insurance. That’s 19.2 percent of the state’s population, a considerable cohort. Many of these uninsured Idahoans would probably use a marketplace where they can shop for coverage — no matter where the Supreme Court comes down on the “individual mandate,” the much-debated linchpin of the federal health care law.
And that’s the problem. The health exchange issue became conjoined with the furor over the federal health care law. Part of that is unavoidable; there was, of course, the matter of accepting $20.3 million in federal health care money to establish an Idaho exchange. But opponents of an Idaho exchange have sought to capitalize as much as they can on the unpopularity of “Obamacare” — as evidenced by House Health and Welfare Committee Chairwoman Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls, and her Statehouse “Bible sessions” to bring together people to read excerpts of the law.
Lost in all the commotion is the fact that a gubernatorial task force recommended the creation of a health exchange.
Five years ago.
This was the year when Gov. Butch Otter seemed prepared to follow up on his task force’s recommendations and push for a health insurance exchange. But when it came down to pressing for an initiative he claimed to support, his arguments and follow-through were half-hearted. Otter never seemed terribly interested in getting a state-run exchange moving — before 2014, when, under the federal health care law, the feds can come in and establish their own framework.
This is a governor who has had little success trying to lead legislators where they don’t want to go, as best illustrated by the first-term drubbing he took when he sought gasoline tax and vehicle registration increases to bankroll highway repairs. The health exchange might have been an even tougher fight, and possibly a futile effort — but Otter didn’t seem to want to find out.
Showing no interest in pressing the issue, Otter seemed perfectly content to give lawmakers a second excuse for doing nothing. And when lawmakers are looking to avoid difficult work, any old excuse will do.