As a family physician in Idaho, I’ve watched in dismay as the past four legislative sessions failed to address the “gap” population in any meaningful way. This disappointment was particularly poignant on the last day of the 2016 session, when Republican representatives in the Idaho House voted unanimously to deny the gap-coverage solution approved the day prior by a bipartisan majority of the Senate.
If you aren’t familiar with the gap population, there are currently 78,000 Idahoans, most of whom are employed and have children, who lack any form of health insurance. They fall into the gap because they don’t qualify for Medicaid coverage, yet ironically earn too little to receive subsidy assistance on Idaho’s insurance exchange. Thousands in the gap are delaying needed health care, which frequently leads to health emergencies, resulting in poor outcomes including death. These situations can also result in families spiraling into medical debt and bankruptcy.
The May 17 primary election results suggest there is hope for those in the gap. It is clear that Idahoans went to the polls and voted for lawmakers who have a record of supporting affordable access to health care and leading efforts to create a more efficient and cost-effective health system in Idaho.
These promising election results were reinforced shortly thereafter by a poll released May 22 by Idaho Politics Weekly and conducted by Dan Jones and Associates. The poll indicated that 64 percent of Idahoans were disappointed by the legislative failure to close the gap in 2016. The poll also revealed that nearly 50 percent of Republican voters expressed dismay that appropriate legislative action was not taken to close the gap. The results of this poll are consistent with past polls conducted in Idaho over the last two years, again reinforcing that the general population in Idaho feels that providing gap coverage is a compelling issue for the state.
The legislators who were willing to step forth as advocates for closing the gap deserve a special “thank-you” for their courage and leadership, and in particular for listening to their constituents. These legislators worked hard to advance an Idaho solution to spend our tax dollars wisely, generate hundreds of millions of dollars in new economic activity, improve the health of thousands of our friends and neighbors, and most importantly save hundreds of lives every year.
This summer, Gov. Butch Otter, Speaker of the House Scott Bedke and Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill’s promised legislative work group is tasked with developing a complete, comprehensive, Idaho-based solution. I trust that the legislative work group has heard the voice of the public and concludes that closing the gap is critical. Idaho, and in particular our 78,000 gap citizens, cannot afford to wait another year. The primary election outcomes have opened the door for the work group to lay the foundation for passage of a full solution to the coverage gap during the 2017 Idaho Legislative Session.
Health care is finally in reach for the 78,000 Idahoans who find themselves needlessly without access because of the coverage gap.
Dr. Bruce Belzer, M.D., is a WWAMI and Family Medicine Residency of Idaho graduate. He is president-elect of the Idaho Medical Association, a statewide organization providing representation and advocacy for over 2,700 physicians, residents, medical students, physician assistants and nurse practitioners.