Gov. Butch Otter’s bill to establish a state health exchange under the U.S. Affordable Care Act cleared the Idaho Senate on a 23-12 vote Thursday, sending the measure to the House.
The Senate’s endorsement of the state-operated online insurance marketplace in Senate Bill 1042 was stronger than some anticipated. Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, a key supporter, had said he expected a close vote.
The debate was extraordinarily long, lasting 6 hours and 15 minutes. Of the Senate’s 35 members, 25 spoke. One used an allotted 60 seconds to explain her vote.
The floor sponsor, Commerce and Human Resources Committee Chairman John Tippets, R-Montpelier, said a state-run exchange would be better than the federal exchange that would be established absent state action.
“I think we’re going to be able to do it much less costly than the federal government,” said Tippets, who fielded 20 questions from various opponents. The bill is backed by the insurance industry, health care providers and business groups.
Sen. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, called the Affordable Care Act “this abominable law,” but said current law can’t be ignored and that a state-run program is preferable.
“I can’t ride this pig if it’s a federal exchange,” Hagedorn said. “I can ride this with spurs on if it’s a state exchange.”
Opponents said Idaho should continue to resist the federal mandate for individuals to purchase health insurance, despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s affirmation of the law in a case brought by Idaho and other states.
“I believe it clearly exceeds the federal government’s powers under the Constitution and I cannot go along with that,” said Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa. “I just won’t be complicit in the federal government taking away the rights of Idaho citizens.”
“When we’re told states are supreme, I ask the question: What are we doing?” said Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth.
Among those backing the bill was Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. Cameron, who sells health insurance, countered opponents who argue that a federal exchange is a better alternative or that a third option exists.
Cameron said he asked one opponent what a third option would be. “He said, ‘Rebellion,’” Cameron recounted. “That’s not a choice, that’s not a choice for us.”
Cameron added, “You don’t weaken the federal government by defaulting to them, you make them stronger.”
Every Republican who spoke voiced opposition to the underlying federal law, but 17 of 28 Republicans voted for the state-run exchange.
Six of the seven Democrats voted for the Otter’s bill, with Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise, saying the law is the best that President Obama and Congress could do. Bock said he would have rather had a single-payer system.
“I’m here to tell you I support my president, I support Obamacare,” said Bock, the Democratic Caucus chairman.
Sen. Branden Durst, D-Boise, seconded a motion by Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, to delay the bill and send it to the amending order. Nuxoll sought to address concerns of pro-life groups, Durst sought other amendments. That motion failed, 24-11. On an identical vote, a motion to return the bill to committee failed. Durst joined 10 Republicans supporting both procedural moves. Durst also was the lone Democrat to vote against the bill’s final passage, saying it lacks adequate consumer protection and legislative oversight.
At the six-hour mark in debate, Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon, suggested it was time to vote. “If we were to debate for another five minutes or another five hours, I doubt the needle would be moved appreciably,” said Guthrie, who voted for the bill.
Five minutes later, after a 25th and final senator rose to debate, Tippets was recognized to end the talk. He reviewed the arguments against and for the bill and said, “The facts are we will have an exchange of some type….To ignore the laws of this nation would be to start down the road to anarchy.”
The measure now moves to the 70-member House for a hearing. Last week, 16 GOP freshman gave a big boost to SB 1042, endorsing it as long as a “trailer” bill, House Bill 179, passes. HB 179 adds what the supporters say is additional oversight.
House Speaker Scott Bedke has suggested he will assign the measure to the 18-member House Business Committee, not the Health & Welfare Committee, as some expected.