In yet another contentious and fiery hearing on the bill, the Idaho House passed the Idaho Health Freedom Act on a 52-18 party line voted Tuesday.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, would give power to the state attorney general to fight any health care mandates handed down by the federal government, especially those requiring citizens to purchase health insurance coverage. Clark argued on the floor of the House that the bill also protects the freedom and liberty of Idahoans, and protects their right to choose, or not choose, health insurance as they wish.
The bill was amended last week due to a possible conflict with a state board of education mandate that requires all public university students in the state to carry health care coverage. According to Clark, the amendment made clear the distinction between the federal and state governments.
"The Idaho Health Freedom Act is not saying ‘no’ to health care reform. In fact … it’s the first step to saying yes,” Clark said on the floor. He added that the state is free to reform health as it desires, but the federal government cannot force citizens to buy insurance as a requirement of citizenship.
The bill's co-sponsor, Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, spoke in support of the bill, saying the legislation proposed at the federal level is an "extreme deviation from our constitutional principles." Luker said Idaho Health Freedom Act proposes no fixes to the health care system in the state, but will help oppose the federal government's health care reform measures.
Rep. Elfreda Higgins, D-Garden City, was the first Democrat to speak in opposition to the bill, noting its fiscal impact. The bill has a potential $100,000 price tag if the matter eventually goes to court. The money set aside by the bill would provide funding should the attorney general's office need to hire an extra attorney to handle the case load, which Clark pointed out, may not be necessary. Higgins said that in a time of budget cuts for schools, she couldn't support a measure that would "deplete state resources."
Rep. Pete Nielson, R-Mountain Home, said that "higher governments cannot impose their will on smaller governments, though smaller government may choose to accept it." Nielson, like Clark, argued that the freedom of choice and state sovereignty must be preserved through the legislation.
House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewistown, called the bill "premature," citing the fact that no federal reforms had been passed. Rusche added that he doubts that Congress will be able to pass any health care legislation. A physician by trade, Rusche argued that America's spending on health care- $3 trillion a year- far exceeds the value of services received by the American people. He also noted that many instances can be found in state law requiring citizens to carry health coverage.
Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, replied to Higgins' comments, saying that the state could spend, "at most," the $100,000 per year, though he said it is unlikely the state will have to shell out the funds. He added the move was not premature, saying it would be a "terrible mistake for Idaho to wait until a bill is passed." Labrador said that he, like many other lawmakers, including Rucshe, sees the need for reform in the health care system, but cannot support the federal legislative proposals.
The sparks started to fly as Rep. Lenore Hardy Barrett stood to speak in support of the issue.
"Let's boil this down," said Hardy Barrett. "Either you believe in the Constitution, or you don't ... either you believe in the oath of office you took, or you don't."
At that point, Assistant Minority Leader James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, objected to Barrett insinuating that a vote against the Idaho Health Freedom Act was a vote against the Constitution or a legislator's oath of office. After some light rebuking by Speaker of the House Lawrence Denney, R-Midvale, Barrett backed down and changed her tune slightly, but still spoke in favor of the measure.
The bill will now be sent to the Senate for further consideration. You can view the bill online here.
(Note: Tuesday's hearing on the bill was not the first contentious hearing on the issue. Click here to read about another meeting in the House that ended in controversy over the Idaho Health Freedom Act.)