Printed on: March 04, 2013

Speaker Bedke deftly navigates health care debate

By Dan Popkey
Idaho Statesman

Rather than seize the momentum of an impressive 23-12 Senate vote for Gov. Butch Otter's state-run online insurance marketplace Feb. 21, House Speaker Scott Bedke laid back.

He postponed a Feb. 25 hearing on House Bill 179, the trailer bill backed by 16 GOP House freshmen in exchange for support of Otter's SB 1042. Bedke assigned Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Fred Wood to spend last week combining the two bills and adding friendly amendments agreeable to Otter.

The result - scheduled for introduction Monday in Wood's committee - appears to have withered House opposition and left foes without an obvious champion.

House GOP Caucus Chairman John Vander Woude of rural Ada County still says he can't find anything to like in Otter's plan, but admits no experienced leader has surfaced to rally opposition.

Vander Woude, the No. 4 House GOP leader, is joined by No. 2 and No. 3 in opposing Otter and Bedke, R-Oakley. But Majority Leader Mike Moyle of Star and Assistant Majority Leader Brent Crane of Nampa sound like beaten puppies.

"I don't like it," Moyle said last week. "But I'm not the leader of any organized opposition."

Said Crane: "Although I am opposed to a state-based exchange, I am not the leader of the opposition and I don't know who is."

In their place, a freshman lawmaker not part of the "Gang of 16" is stepping up, Janet Trujillo, R-Idaho Falls.

"If somebody needed to stick their neck out and be the leader I would gladly take that on," said Trujillo. "We definitely have our work cut out for us. We need to explain to people that the only way we can keep our state sovereignty is to say no."

"I'm still hopeful," said Wayne Hoffman of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, the leading lobbyist against the exchange. Hoffman says the Gang of 16's proposal "appears to be unraveling," but freshman Steve Miller, R-Fairfield, said the group is solid.

Bedke's slowdown erased what might have been a persuasive argument for some, particularly the historically large freshman class dealing with a complex issue that has political punch.

"There will be no legitimate basis for criticism of the process," said Wood, R-Burley. "People can't say, 'We didn't have time, they railroaded it through, they're a bunch of bad guys because they didn't want discussion.' There's been more discussion on this issue than on any issue since I've been here."

The review included a working group in 2011 and a task force in 2012, both of which produced bills leading to SB 1042.

Bedke said he understands that stretching out the process means another Senate Committee hearing and another Senate floor debate, after the six-hour talkfest on Feb. 21. But he said giving opponents a chance to tweak a single bill will make the result less cumbersome and maybe even pick up votes.

"Any new ideas have to be in good faith, that is to say: No poison pills," Bedke said. "I'm all about a cleaner, streamlined approach."

Amendments could include a hat tip to Oklahoma's lawsuit, which attempts to bring the Affordable Care Act down like a Jenga tower by removing the tax credits and subsidies that undergird "affordable."

But Wood said hostile amendments to put rulemaking under the direct authority of the Legislature or to limit monthly fees for customers to $5 are unacceptable.

Republicans haven't given up on their opposition to Obamacare, but Bedke hopes to convince a few more to accept the fact that, absent a state exchange, the feds will step in.

 "We've got to play the hand we're dealt," Bedke said. "I think it's incumbent on the Legislature to make a bad situation a little better, while looking for a process that's cheaper for Idahoans and keeps jobs in Idaho."

Bedke appears on the verge of winning his first big fight as speaker, after unseating the House's leading state-exchange opponent in former Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, in December.

But bet on this: Bedke doesn't just want 36 votes in the 70-member House. He'll be watching if a majority of his 57-member GOP caucus sides with their new speaker, and, better yet, if there are 36 Republican votes for Otter's plan.

 

DUELING POLLS ON HEALTH EXCHANGES

 

A poll commissioned by the Idaho Hospital Association has persuaded some reluctant lawmakers to take another look at a state-run health insurance exchange and reassured others that a "yes" vote is safe.

IHA, an influental supporter, commissioned GS Strategy Group of Boise, which is run by Greg Strimple, a moderate Republican who was a senior advisor to Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign. Strimple also worked for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in 2009 and Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk in 2010.

Strimple's poll, conducted Feb. 4 and 5 among 500 likely voters statewide, has a 4.4 percent margin for error. IHA released this question and the result, which found a large majority of respondents agreeing that Idaho should "move ahead now" with a state-run exchange.

Here's the question:

"The Affordable Care Act establishes a new way for individuals and small businesses to purchase insurance through health insurance exchanges. These are essentially marketplaces where people can compare insurance plans and choose the one that's right for them. If Idaho doesn't implement its own health insurance exchange by 2014, the federal government will institute a plan for Idaho. Knowing this, would you want Idaho to move ahead now with creating an exchange, or wait for the federal government's plan?"

GS Strategy Group reported 74 percent answered "move ahead," 16 percent said "wait," and 10 percent didn't know or refused to answer.

Those results were challenged by another pollster, Lou Esposito of Spartac Public Affairs Management. Esposito is an ally of exchange opponent and former House Speaker Lawerence Denney and led the unsuccessful effort to purge incumbent Republicans seen as insufficiently conservative during the 2012 primary.

Spartac conducted a poll for the Idaho Freedom Foundation, the leading opponent of the state-run exchange. The poll of 600 registered voters was taken Feb. 23, two days after the Senate approved a state exchange. The margin for error was 4 percent.

In an analysis released by IFF, Spartac said the GS poll question was biased and said of the 74 percent support: "That number is simply not credible, given the vast data available showing deep hostility to Obamacare within the state."

IFF released three poll questions, two of which found a majority backing a state exchange and one showing a plurality opposed.