Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter says no matter what, the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare as it's known, was coming to Idaho.
“Because if we hadn’t [have] established our own state exchange, we would have had Obamacare in Idaho,” he says. “We didn’t have a choice. We were going to have an exchange in Idaho. We were going to have the Obamacare exchange in Idaho or we were gonna have [an] Idaho exchange in Idaho.”
Otter’s lesser-of-two-evils argument is in response to critics like his top Republican challenger in the May 20 primary, Sen. Russ Fulcher. Fulcher says Otter voluntarily embraced Obamacare by agreeing to set up a state-run health insurance exchange in 2012.
Since Otter’s recommendation to the state Legislature two years ago, enrollment through the Affordable Care Act's online marketplace is nearly twice the federal goal. Fulcher says he’s not sure if be believes the numbers. Otter says participation is higher than expected because residents bought their insurance through the state’s online portal.
“I interpret those numbers that they have faith in Idahoans, because Idahoans are running it,” the governor says. “I would say maybe not as many Idahoans would have signed up had it been the federal exchange.”
Otter blames “folks like Fulcher” for leading Idaho voters to think the state had a choice in having Obamacare in the state. The challenger has made the issue a cornerstone of his effort to unseat Otter, a two-term incumbent.
On the issue of Medicaid expansion, Fulcher says he’s sure Otter will expand the program to more low-income people if elected to a third term. Otter says he’s still studying what will work best in other states. The governor has created a task force to assist him with a recommendation, even though his panel in 2012 unanimously recommended expanding Medicaid to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.
“That task force will study those other states,” he says. “I’m not prepared to tell anybody or the Legislature yet what I would recommend until I see the results of the task force.”
By not expanding Medicaid, roughly 77,000 Idahoans fall into a coverage gap where they make too much money to qualify for the low-income health insurance program, but can't qualify for a subsidy on the newly-created Obamacare insurance exchange. Gov. Otter says President Obama is to blame.
“We have responsibility in this nation to have equitable treatment under the law of everybody,” he says. “And in this case, the gap that they left in there was not fair.”
That gap wasn't created within the health care law, but rather by the U.S. Supreme Court when it gave states the authority to decide whether to expand Medicaid.
Otter is also touting his job creation record. Unemployment in Idaho has fallen since the recession officially ended. Idaho’s jobless rate is at its lowest level in more than five years. But the state also ranks near the bottom for worker pay.
Otter says many of the jobs created are “brand new jobs in brand new industries." He says he does agree with recent comments from the head of the state Labor Department, that Idaho now needs to shift its focus and create better-paying jobs.
Fulcher has attempted to paint Gov. Otter as a Republican Party outsider and someone who isn’t conservative enough for the average Idaho voter. Otter says he’s most interested in having a ‘big tent’ Republican Party and likens himself to Ronald Reagan and former Idaho Gov. Phil Batt.
“Those people that I only agree with 80 percent of the time are not my enemy,” Otter says. “I think the Republican Party in Idaho for the future needs to focus on our problems instead of those things that we disagree with all the time. There’s a lot of things that we agree on.”
Incumbent Republican Rep. Mike Simpson is facing a similar challenge from the right in tea party candidate Bryan Smith. Otter says the May 20 vote will determine the direction of Idaho’s majority party.
“I think it’s gonna be a signal of where those people who vote in the primary want the Party to go,” he says. “That’s why I think the election is about the heart and soul of the Republican Party, as well as about what kind of a champion the Republican Party wants going into November.”
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