By Dustin Hurst | Watchdog.org
Gov. Butch Otter is hardly the first politician to reverse course on a controversial and highly contentious issue.
Look at President Obama’s evolution on gay marriage, George H.W. Bush’s flip on his “no new taxes” pledge, or Mitt Romney on, well, everything.
Yet, Otter’s conversion from bellicose health-care rebel to boisterous lobbyist for one of the law’s critical elements – the exchange – signals nothing less than a seismic shift for the gregarious Republican governor.
He’s going all in for the exchange, essentially an Amazon.com for health insurance. Otter’s chief of staff, David Hensley, introduced the bill in the Senate Commerce Committee this week, and the governor’s office has created an online petition to pressure legislators to pass it. The petition had 1,908 signatures as of Friday morning.
In January’s State of the State address, Otter expressed some ambivalence about health-care reform in general, but he said Idaho must implement a state-based exchange to allow its government to exert at least some control over the process.
“Rejecting the opportunity to assert ourselves will result in an unresponsive, one-size-fits-all federal exchange wreaking havoc on some of America’s most reasonable costs of coverage,” Otter said in his Jan. 7 address to lawmakers. “At its core, this is a matter of state’s rights.”
If Otter rejected the exchange, the federal government would take over. Officials in 25 states will take the federal route, while 18 states and the District of Columbia will move forward with their own exchanges. The other seven states will work with the federal government on a sort of hybrid exchange .
Federal health-care reform dictates the exchanges open enrollment on Oct. 1 for coverage beginning Jan. 1, 2014.
When Otter announced in December his decision to seek the state-based option, a choice the New York Times said “delighted” federal officials, he joined with only a handful of Republican governors in following that course.
The Congressional Budget Office projects between 23 million and 25 million Americans will purchase health coverage through the exchanges, and the CBO predicts more than $218 billion in federal subsidies will flow through them between 2012 and 2022.
But Otter wasn’t always so gung-ho about implementing the federal health exchange.
In 2010, he became the first governor in the nation to sign a health freedom act, legislation essentially barring the implementation of the federal health-care reform law in Idaho. During a lengthy news conference before signing the bill, Otter gleefully bantered with reporters about how the measure would protect the state from the invasive federal government and, in turn, assert state sovereignty.
“What the Idaho Health Freedom Act says is that the citizens of our state won’t be subject to another federal mandate or turn over another part of their life to government control,” Otter said in a March 17, 2010, press release hailing the bill’s signing.
Otter delivered a harsh assessment of what the federal health reform measure would mean for Idahoans and Americans.
“This health-care bill does nothing to make it more affordable,” Otter emphasized when asked what the state could do to bring down the cost of health care. Instead, the governor explained, it served only the insurance industry.
Three years later, Otter has transformed from a lion of rebellion into a pussycat of acquiescence.
In this stunning pivot, the governor’s office now projects a full-throated defense of a state-based health exchange and offers an aggressive public relations push to sell the idea to the public.
In January, Otter’s office released “Health Insurance Exchange Myths,” a document intended as much to push the exchange – as well as to discredit critics.
“The governor’s intention, by supporting a state-based exchange, is to assert our independence and our commitment to self-determination, while fulfilling our responsibility to rule of law,” the document says.
Wayne Hoffman, head of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, scoffs at the notion the state-based plan will bear any evidence of self-determination of independence.
“This is a move to implement Obamacare and to help Idaho become a patsy for the federal government,” Hoffman, a key exchange opponent, said Friday. “The state will have no control, only the illusion of control.”
Just hours after Otter released his petition, the Idaho Freedom Foundation created its own for opponents of the exchange plan. Hoffman hasn’t made the signatories public, but the think tank president says the document has ample support.
Republican governors who’ve rejected the exchange side with Hoffman.
Wisconsin GOP Gov. Scott Walker, for one, rejected the exchange and called it “state-in-name-only.”
“No matter which option is chosen, Wisconsin taxpayers will not have meaningful control over the health-care policies and services sold to Wisconsin residents,” Walker wrote in a Nov. 16 letter to U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “If the state option is chosen, however, Wisconsinites face risk from a federal mandate lacking long-term guaranteed funding.”
Similarly, Virginia’s GOP governor, Bob McDonnell, snubbed the state exchange, calling it a “monstrous bureaucracy.”
“If Virginians are faced with running a costly, heavily regulated bureaucratic exchange without clear direction from Washington, then it is in the best interest of our taxpayers to let Washington manage an exchange at this time,” McDonnell said in Dec. 14, according to the Washington Post.
McDonnell criticized the federal government for failing to provide adequate information about the exchange creation process.
Back in Idaho, Hoffman expresses some concern that lawmakers – the only hurdle between Otter and the fulfillment of his exchange dream – have been suckered by the governor’s public relations push.
“There are some legislators out there that have bought into the notion that the state will have some control over this thing,” Hoffman said.
State Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, isn’t one of them.
“I am for no state-based exchange,” Barbieri said in a phone call Friday. “If the feds want to come in and set up their own exchange and impose it on Idaho, then we’ll deal with that.”
Like Hoffman, Barbieri senses deep division about pursuing the state option. “It will probably come down to a few voters either way,” he said, adding that the bill is a done deal in the Senate and more likely to die in the House.
“Opponents of the health exchange are doing everything they can to kill it in committee,” he said.
Idaho Senate Majority Caucus Chair Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, earlier this week became the highest-ranking legislator to buck the governor’s call for the state option. Fulcher penned a guest editorial for Idaho Chooses Life, another interest group opposing the governor’s exchange plan.
Because so many states opted for the federal exchange, the senator said, HHS will have a difficult time meeting its own deadlines for exchange openings. If Idaho opts for a federal exchange and adds to the workload, it could ultimately help cripple Obamacare, he reasoned.
“With expertise and fiscal resources scarce, and with other complications caused by an unpopular nationwide mandate for citizens to purchase insurance, the federal government is under immense pressure having to impose federal-based exchanges in so many states,” Fulcher wrote on Tuesday.
“The feds should be granted every opportunity to fail, and hopefully they will.”
Note: The author of this post worked for the Idaho Freedom Foundation prior to signing on to Watchdog.org. IdahoReporter.com is published by the Idaho Freedom Foundation