- Associated Press - Thursday, March 24, 2016

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Idaho House lawmakers on Thursday punted on approving a proposal to allow the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare to apply for a Medicaid waiver to provide health insurance for people who have incomes below 100 percent of the federal poverty line.

House Speaker Scott Bedke says the House will take up the contentious legislation on Friday, the same day the Legislature would adjourn for the year.

If approved, Idaho will take the first ever comprehensive step to begin finding a way to provide medical care to the estimated 78,000 Idahoans without health coverage because they either don’t qualify for Medicaid, the health care program designed to cover the poor, or make too much for a subsidy. However, the bill faces a steep uphill battle in the House, which has far-right conservatives unwilling to consider any form of Medicaid expansion because of its ties to the federal Affordable Care Act.

The last-minute bill was stitched together by Senate lawmakers on Thursday after completely transforming a minor health care bill in the House that would have only allocated more funding for studying the so-called Medicaid gap population.

“Another year is a long time to do the right thing. The golf clubs and fishing poles can wait,” said Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-Pocatello. “I spoke to my cows and they miss me. But they’ll wait another day.”

The eight senators who voted against the proposal argued that they could not support a plan that involved relying on the federal government. It’s a sentiment that has been used in the Republican-dominated Idaho Legislature for years to reject any proposals for Medicaid expansion.

“Not one of those who left bloody tracks in the snow at Valley Forge did so over free health care. It’s not a right,” said Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, who said he voted in favor of the bill reluctantly.

Earlier that day, protesters laid floral funeral wreaths in front of the House and Senate chambers as part of a demonstration to “close the gap.”

Lawmakers have been floating possible solutions to addressing the so-called Medicaid gap population in the final days of the session, but the Republican supermajority has failed to find a consensus. Two proposals were passed in the House on Wednesday that called for studies on the topic, but they immediately faced opposition by the next day.

Five Republican lawmakers then announced they regretted voting on the proposals during a House Health and Welfare meeting. “What I am unwilling to tolerate is inaction,” said Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa.

The group then promised to vote against any bills that come through the House Health and Welfare Committee during the 2017 Legislature until a proposal emerges that address the gap population. However, whether they have to follow through with that promise will be up in the air until the House votes on the pending Medicaid waiver on Friday.

House Minority Leader Rep. John Rusche, also a committee member, praised the group’s sentiments.

Rusche, who has publicly criticized the GOP’s inaction on Democratic-backed bills throughout the session, then said he would ask Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter to call a special session to get Medicaid expansion passed.

He acknowledged, however, that Otter would likely deny the request.

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