House and Welfare Committee Chairman Fred Wood invoked President Lincoln’s memory Thursday in urging calm and respect on the hot-button issue of the year, GOP Gov. Butch Otter’s push for a state-based health insurance exchange to allow consumers to shop online.
Wood opened the first major public hearing since Monday’s naming of the Abraham Lincoln Auditorium, the Capitol’s largest meeting room, with an appeal to focus on the issue at hand: whether Idaho should operate the exchange or default to a federally operated marketplace.
“We all think his spirit lives here,” Wood began. “His spirit would be one of civility, one of appropriate decorum and one of ideas. And that’s why the committee is here today, to listen to your ideas.”
In the first hour of the meeting, Wood’s call for civility was heeded. In the second hour, the chairman warned against personal attacks after one man called Otter a Mussolini-style fascist.
The meeting began at 7 a.m. to accommodate what is anticipated to be a lengthy hearing on House Bill 248.
Wood continued: “This bill is about an insurance exchange and the choice that Idaho has to make. It’s not about other things. And I understand the passion associated with the whole issue of the Affordable Care Act in the United States and what that means and what that doesn’t mean for a lot of people. This is about one very small part of it — it’s about insurance exchanges.
“And so the committee would respectfully request that you keep your comments to the insurance exchange and the bill at hand. We ask that you be respectful of anyone else’s testimony. There are deeply held beliefs here, regardless of which side of this issue you’re on. To that end, we don’t want any applause, shouting whistling, clapping or displays of emotion.”
Testimony began with Otter’s chief of staff, David Hensley, who said Idaho’s sovereignty was protected by the state-run program. Hensley fielded a series of mostly sympathetic questions, saying participation in the exchange is voluntary; that the exchange’s start-up costs will be born by the federal government; and that HB 248 does not violate the Idaho Health Freedom Act.
The bill’s most vocal opponent, Wayne Hoffman of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, was given equal time.
“I want to be very very clear and unambiguous about what we’re doing here,” Hoffman said. “I think the supporters of the bill are sincere when they’re saying they’re trying to protect Idahoans from the long arm of the federal government.
“But let’s be clear about the Affordable Care Act: It is socialism. You can’t fix it. You can’t outrun it. You can’t contain it or make it better. You can’t outsmart it. You can’t manage it. If you accept some of it, you will clear a path to all of it. The states are the last stand against an overreaching, imposing federal government.”
One opponent of HB 248, Idaho County Commissioner Jim Chmelik called on the committee to stand up to President Obama. “It’s time to say ‘no’ to this gentleman who thinks he’s king.”
Kerry Uhlenkott, a lobbyist for Right to Life of Idaho, said her group opposes a state-run exchange because “there is no explicit protection for unborn life.”
But Christine Tiddens, representing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Idaho, said the church supports HB 248. Tiddens said the church opposes federal mandates requiring insurance plans to cover contraception, abortion and abortion inducing drugs.
“However, we recognize that these mandates, which violate our core faith values, can only be changed at the federal level. While we continue to work with our national partners to evaluate options available at the federal level to address these unacceptable federal mandates — including urging support for the recently introduced Health Care Conscience Act of 2013 — we also know that we need to take action now on the state level to protect the life of all vulnerable populations in Idaho, especially those who currently do not have access to affordable and life-saving health care.”
About 75 minutes into the meeting, Wood paused to offer “a note of caution.” Wood’s admonition about personal attacks followed testimony from Joseph Rohner III, who accused Otter of practicing Mussolini-style fascism.
“By signing such a bill, Gov. Butch ‘Ottercare’ Otter is ordering the people of Idaho to accept fascism over freedom,” Rohner said. ” Those of you who vote for this bill will be, by your actions, forever branded as fascists. All of you who do so will face the wrath of the voters at the next election. Mr. Otter will be at the top of the list for removal from office, I promise you that.”
Said Wood: “Let’s be careful about getting to the point where we have what may e considered by some people as personal attacks. We’re doing very well today, we’ll get everyone heard today — just a note of caution.”
Ronalee Linsenmann, a former GOP legislative candidate from Canyon County, urged the committee reject the bill and not comply with Obama’s effort to “play dictator.”