Nullification votes worries legislators

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SANDPOINT — Between budget shortfalls and controversial legislation, local representatives and health care professionals are increasingly fearful for future of Medicaid in Idaho.

State representatives passed a 49-20 vote of legislation nullifying federal health care reform Wednesday morning. Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, the only Republican to oppose the legislation in the House State Affairs Committee’s 14-5 vote, emerged from a long day at the Legislature very displeased.

“I’m not a fan of the affordable health care bill, but this is the wrong way to oppose it,” he said.

Anderson’s position arrives on the heels of a statement from the  Idaho Attorney General’s Office declaring the nullification initiative unconstitutional.

“The attorney general thinks this bill is illegal,” Anderson said. “As far as I’m concerned, until that is cleared up, I’m not happy at all with today’s outcome.”

The attorney general’s office also cautioned lawmakers to tread carefully lest they endanger Idaho’s federal benefits. The AARP echoed that warning, citing potentially disastrous consequences for state health care. Their numbers state that 18,000 seniors could lose prescription drug coverage, 6,520 young adults could be dropped from their parents’ insurance plans, 212,000 older residents could lose free preventative screenings and 215,000 Medicaid enrollees could be forced from the program. The AARP also said that insurance providers could boot 857,000 residents once they reached their lifetime limit, resulting in higher premiums, and the state could lose $1.5 billion in federal matching funds for Medicaid.

“The extent of the damage is still up in the air,” Anderson said. “But it could be devastating and concerns me greatly.”

With its victory in the house, the nullification bill proceeds to the Senate. Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said she couldn’t predict how senators would respond to the legislation.

“I do believe the federal government has overstepped its bounds, but this legislation is the wrong tool to address the issue.” she said. “My personal priority is to protect the more vulnerable members of society.”

But even if Idaho preserves its $1.5 billion in federal match funds, the future of Medicaid distresses local health care officials. Many legislators are calling for a $50 million cut to Medicaid dollars. Since the federal government matches $70 for every $30 of state Medicaid funding, that would result in a total loss of $166.5 million. According to the group Medicaid Matters in Idaho, that cut would eliminate irreplaceable jobs, hurt Idaho’s economic recovery and impact Idaho’s most vulnerable residents, including the elderly, the poor and the mentally disabled.

State officials called for residents to cover the loss of services with an increase in volunteer work. Cutback opponents estimated that Idaho would require 22,000 more volunteers to cover services for adults with disabilities.

“You can’t just replace an educated professional with volunteer hours,” Panhandle Special Needs, Inc. production manager Diane Dennis said.

To protest the proposed cuts and raise public awareness, Dennis and other health care professionals are hosting a rally Saturday at noon outside Panhandle State Bank.

“We’re keeping it short and sweet,” Dennis said. “There won’t be music or anything big like that — just an informational rally about the impact of the Medicaid cuts.”

Dennis didn’t know whether the rally would have any impact on the legislative discussion. According to Keough, the matter is still under investigation by the House and Senate Health and Welfare Committees.

“They’re taking an exhaustive effort to look at just how services are structured and how they’ll be impacted by the cuts,” she said.

However, both Anderson and Keough recognize the extent to which some residents depend on Medicaid, and they acknowledged that both the nullification bill and cutbacks warranted serious consideration based on the danger they posed to its services.

“It’s important to take a stand on this,” Anderson said regarding the nullification legislation. “It’s worth fighting for, no matter what the cost.”

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