Democrat voluntarily joins the uninsured

In a photo taken earlier this year at the Legislature, Sen. Dan Schmidt talks to another senator at the Statehouse in Boise.

BOISE - Moscow Sen. Dan Schmidt gave up his taxpayer-funded health insurance benefit Thursday, saying it was a matter of fairness.

"It's tough to give it up; it's a very generous benefit," Schmidt said. "But it occurs to me it's not fair that I get this benefit and the Legislature doesn't give it to 78,000 Idahoans who can't afford it."

Schmidt has been a leading voice in urging lawmakers to do something to address the state's Medicaid gap population, which includes an estimated 78,000 working adults who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid, but too little to qualify for subsidized health insurance through the state marketplace under the Affordable Care Act.

Earlier this year, he authored two Medicaid expansion bills that would have extended coverage to the gap population, while generating net savings for the state and counties next year of $3 million to $47 million.

When neither bill advanced out of committee, Schmidt and his fellow Democrats tried to call the bill to the Senate floor Monday, but were defeated on a party-line vote.

"If you're in a situation that isn't fair, you work to change it or you get out," he said. "I've done my best to change it. I've tried in committee and tried on the floor. I'm trying to nudge folks to feel a sense of urgency about this and do the right thing."

In an effort to keep the pressure on his Republican colleagues, Schmidt announced his insurance decision during a noon press conference.

"I want people to think about this," he said. "To me, the state has a problem. We can help the state be more productive if we solve this problem - and we can solve it, and save money."

Lawmakers receive medical and dental health insurance; the state pays $933.32 per month in premiums, or $11,200 per year. That's almost as much as a lawmaker's annual salary.

Schmidt said he discussed the decision with his wife. They do not have other health insurance.

"We like having it," he said. "We'll probably have to go buy it."

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said he believes his caucus will address the Medicaid gap this session, although it's not entirely clear what steps they'll take.

While Schmidt's announcement might present something of a public relations problem for Republicans, Bedke said, "I think the majority party will move ahead with whatever program has support, regardless."

Some type of health care proposal is likely to be introduced Monday. Bedke indicated it may involve block grants to community health centers, to help them cover the cost of treatment and follow-up service for people in the gap population.

There's also talk about providing money to better track how many people really lack health insurance.

"If we're going to move to a risk-based managed care system, we need better actuarial data so the bids can be as tight as possible," he said.

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said if Republicans come forward with a plan that actually covers the uninsured in a fiscally responsible way, his caucus will certainly be inclined to support it.

At this late date in the session, however, there's some skepticism whether anything of substance will come forward.

"They're looking for a way to shuffle this off for another year," said Rep. Dan Rudolph, D-Lewiston. "They don't want to do anything."

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Spence may be contacted at bspence@lmtribune.com or (208) 791-9168.

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