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Exchange excuses: The debate that wasn’t

Kevin Richert
March 29, 2012
Idaho Statesman

While nine U.S. Supreme Court justices are scrutinizing the federal health care law, 105 Idaho legislators and one governor have done what comes naturally.

They are ducking a tough issue. In this case, the creation of a health insurance exchange - a concept that has been in Idaho's public dialogue for five years.

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 excuses 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 question 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.

In 2007.

Five years ago.

Gov. Butch Otter seemed prepared to follow up on his task force's recommendations this year, and lead on a health insurance exchange issue. 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 pursuing 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.


Jack Wayne Chappell, a Buhl Democrat making another run for Congress, is criticizing his May 15 primary opponent, state Sen. Nicole LeFavour of Boise.

In a "media memo" sent to reporters Monday, Chappell said LeFavour is unelectable in Idaho's 2nd Congressional District. LeFavour is the only openly gay member of the Idaho Legislature.

Said Chappell: "The Democrat Party is addicted to losing because of fringe candidates from the far left. If you intend to represent the 2nd District, you have to represent the ag belt, and Christian voters. I can do that, and this gal has no clue."

Earlier Monday, Chappell also sent out another email - an "open letter" to supporters and the media - taking me to task for referring to him as a "perennial candidate." Here is Chappell's resume. Judge for yourself:

* 1998. Ran for governor as a Democrat. Finished third in a four-way primary, with 17.3 percent of the vote.

* 2000. Ran in the 2nd Congressional District as a Democrat. Finished second in a two-way primary, receiving 22.7 percent of the vote.

* 2008. Ran again in the 2nd District, this time as a Republican. Finished second in a three-way primary, receiving 8.4 percent of the vote.

That's four campaigns in 14 years, so perhaps "perennial" is an overstatement. But based on his past results, I like Chappell's own terminology: "fringe candidate."

Originally posted at

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