UPDATE: The Home Stretch: Effort to Put Medicaid Expansion on Ballot Approaches Finish Line 

"I was getting tired of the way Idaho does things, in terms of its legislature and how it treats people with medical issues."

UPDATE: April 25, 2018, 4 p.m.

Organizers with Medicaid for Idaho said late Wednesday that they have collected an estimated 55,000 signatures in their effort to secure 56,192 valid signatures by Monday, April 30, in order to bring the issue of Medicaid expansion to the November ballot.

Additionally, volunteers said they had gathered needed signatures in 18 different Idaho legislative districts. But they're still short of the overall statewide goal of 56,192.

“We want to not only meet, but shatter our goal, because health care for 62,000 Idahoans is too important to leave to chance," said Reclaim Idaho Co-founder Luke Mayville.

ORIGINAL STORY: April 25, 2018, 7 a.m.

Alex DeRyan has lived in Idaho on and off for years, but in January 2017, he left for Spokane, Washington, in large part because he was fed up the Idaho Legislature's steadfast refusal to expand Medicaid.

"I was getting tired of the way Idaho does things, in terms of its legislature and how it treats people with medical issues," he said.

An occupational therapist, DeRyan often sees how injuries, illness and chronic conditions affect people's lives in areas as diverse as employment, family life and finances, especially in the absence of health insurance.

According to U.S. Census data, there were approximately 78,000 Idahoans in the health insurance coverage gap in 2014. More recent numbers from the Idaho Department of Health & Welfare show the gap has shrunk to approximately 35,000 people, but for DeRyan and others, that's still far too many.

"Certain folks—single, childless adults between 19 and 64—when they have devastating medical situations, can't qualify for Medicaid in this state," he said. "If that's the case, they're forced to go to emergency rooms for help, and if you have a longstanding medical issue, [like] cancer, you can't keep going to the emergency room every day."

A signature drive by Reclaim Idaho in the final days of its campaign could make an end-run around the Idaho Legislature and put Medicaid expansion on the November ballot. That campaign, Medicaid for Idaho, needs to get the signatures of 56,192 registered voters to make the cut. So far, it has collected approximately 54,000, but time is running short.

"We're coming up on the deadline," said Sam Sandmire, the co-chair of MFI operations in Ada and Canyon counties. "Everything needs to be turned in before [Tuesday,] May 1."

The specific requirements are a result of state rules that say efforts to put referenda on statewide ballots must collect signatures from 6 percent of registered voters in 18 of Idaho's 35 voting districts. The rules were put in place by the Idaho Legislature in the wake of the 2012 defeat of Props. 1, 2 and 3, better known as the Luna Laws—education reforms that were popular with the Republican governor and his superintendent of public instruction, but much less popular with voters. MFI has canvassed the Gem State for signatures in an attempt to meet the quota.

Thus far, its efforts have been successful. As of April 17 the group had "qualified" its petitions in several districts, most recently in districts 32 (Driggs) and 4 (Coeur d'Alene), but four districts remain short of signatures, two of which are in the Treasure Valley: Districts 10 (Caldwell) and 12 (Nampa) were short by more than 500 signatures each as of mid-April. The MFI strategy in those areas has been an intense door-to-door campaign that peaked in vigour the weekend of April 21, a stark contrast to how signatures are collected in Boise.

"In the beginning of the campaign we collected signatures at the marches, rallies, churches, youth groups and Treefort, and concerts and everything, and the people came to us. Well, these folks aren't coming to us. We need to go to them," Sandmire said.

If Sandmire and MFI's legions of signature-collecting volunteers are successful, they will have done something the Legislature couldn't—or wouldn't. In one particularly dramatic scene during the 2018 Idaho legislative session, Republican Rep. Christy Perry (Nampa), who is now running for Congress, bucked the position of her own party to support expanding Medicaid.

"I have been all but spit on in this body for bringing [an expansion bill] back," she said on the floor of the Idaho House. "But I don't give a damn what anyone thinks of me. I came here not because of the people here, but to represent my people, who have cried to have some movement in this particular arena."

Perry wasn't reachable for comment on whether she has signed or supports the MFI petition, though the last battle for expanding Medicaid in Idaho is being fought in her proverbial backyard. It's a hot-potato political issue in Idaho—one eschewed by most lawmakers but embraced by bolder voices looking to garner headlines. Famously, Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador told attendees at a May 2017 town hall event, "Nobody dies because they don't have access to health care." Three days later, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking website PolitiFact slapped his remark with a "Pants on Fire" rating.

"[Legislators] put people in a coverage gap who made too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to get help to buy insurance on the Your Health Idaho exchange," Sandmire said. "I applaud Christy Perry trying to represent her constituents instead of playing politics like other lawmakers have done, because cancer doesn't care if you're a Democrat or a Republican."

Despite laying responsibility for the coverage gap at the feet of the Idaho Legislature, Sandmire said she doesn't think it's a "partisan issue." For DeRyan, it's pure politics. He sees the gap as an invisible or abstract problem for many citizens, who go on to cast votes for legislators who will not prioritize meaningful fixes to the problem. Nevertheless, he said, putting the issue directly to voters is a step forward.

"That says people are waking up and they're realizing how serious this is, that some people are not able to make it," DeRyan said. "Some people are actually dying while they're waiting to get help."


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