BOISE -- Sixteen Republican freshmen in the Idaho House of Representatives have banded together to propose changes to Gov. Butch Otter's health insurance exchange bill, saying they'll back Otter's bill if their changes are incorporated.
That's close to enough votes to put the governor's controversial measure over the top in the highly conservative Idaho House. The bill is now pending in the Senate, after clearing a Senate committee last week on an 8-1 vote.
The GOP governor, an outspoken opponent of the national health care reform law, recommended that Idaho form a state exchange only after months of study by a task force he appointed. If Idaho doesn't act, the federal government will run Idaho's exchange, an online marketplace where Idahoans will be able to shop for health insurance plans and access government subsidies.
Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d'Alene, led the group of freshmen in their proposal, saying, "We refuse to give in to pressure from interested lobbies and existing leadership. Instead, we choose to side with the people this decision will affect." Malek, 31, is a former Kootenai County deputy prosecutor and one of the Legislature's youngest members.
The House Health and Welfare Committee voted to introduce the freshman representatives' bill on Wednesday morning, with just one dissenting vote. The thrust of the bill is to provide more legislative oversight of the new state-operated insurance exchange, including adding two lawmakers to the exchange board as nonvoting members and adding reporting and transparency requirements. "This legislation forces each move of the exchange into the public eye," said Malek. "It gives the Legislature the power to shut the project down and return it to the federal government if our demands are not met."
The one vote against introducing the bill in the committee came from House GOP Caucus Chairman John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, who said afterward, "I'm against a state exchange. Why would I vote for something that helps create it?"
But the freshmen said it wasn't that simple. Rep. Ed Morse, R-Hayden, said, "None of us liked the choices that we were given. None of us felt the protections in the existing bill were adequate. So we formed this group. We can pretty well say no state act will pass without our support, and the current bills did not garner our support. So this is an attempt, we believe, to end up with more assurances, better protections, and represent our constituents."
The group doesn't include all of the Idaho House's huge freshman class, but it does include two-thirds of the 24 House GOP freshmen. Malek, Morse and Rep. Cindy Agidius, R-Moscow, were the North Idaho freshmen in the group; not participating was freshman Rep. Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d'Alene.
The group formed after hallway conversations, its members said, over how they oppose the national health care reform law, but don't like the idea of just letting the federal government do as it wishes and run a federal exchange in Idaho.
Malek said, "The Legislature needs information that will allow us to decide whether our state exchange is providing us a seat at the table or forcing us merely to be a puppet for the federal government." ___