BOISE -- Idaho senators voted Thursday to back the governor's plan to create a state-based nonprofit insurance exchange, rather than defaulting to an exchange run by the federal government, as many other Republican-led states have done.
The 23-12 vote after six hours of debate marked a key milestone for Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's bill. The GOP governor contends the proposal will result in a marketplace for individuals and small businesses to compare and buy insurance that's less expensive and friendlier to Idaho insurers and agents than what Washington, D.C., would come up with.
Many Republicans were torn, given they're among those who oppose President Barack Obama's insurance overhaul, which requires such exchanges.
But GOP Sen. John Tippets of Montpelier argued Idaho, not the federal government, was better off in control since an insurance exchange -- state or federal -- is a virtual certainty come 2014.
"The facts are, we will have a health insurance exchange of some type," Tippets said. "The Department of Insurance anticipates there will be dozens of plans offered through the (state) exchange. That may not be the case with a federal exchange."
Six of seven Senate Democrats backed the measure, which would set up a nonprofit organization with an independent, governor-appointed board to run the exchange. Some took issue with Republicans' criticism of Obama's ambitious 2010 bid to address problems in America's health care system.
"I'm here to tell you, as another voice, I support my president, and I support `Obamacare,"' said Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise.
Otter's office has suggested running a state exchange would cost about $10 million a year, or $58 annually for each of the roughly 177,000 Idaho residents expected to use it. A federal exchange could be more than $150 per person annually, or three times the state rate, Otter has said.
But opponents, including GOP Sens. Steve Thayn of Emmett and Monty Pearce of New Plymouth, insisted such figures remain a dangerous cipher.
Barring certainty, Idaho should join about two dozen other states like Georgia, Oklahoma and Texas that have opted for the federal version, they contended.
"We're in the dark. We don't really know where we're going. We think we do. We've been told all kinds of figures," Pearce said Thursday, arguing this is really just another federal intrusion. "Why would we bring the feds into our state, and invite them to run health care?"
Others foes cited a symbolic vote for Idaho's sovereignty. Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, said his fierce opposition to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was such that he couldn't in good conscience lend his voice to even part of it.
"When the federal government oversteps its bounds, I have a duty to resist that within the constitutional powers I have," McKenzie said.
But backers said such a view, while emotionally satisfying, was unconstitutional, given the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled Obama's overhaul was legal, including its "individual mandate" requiring people to buy insurance or face fines.
Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, described how a man approached him after a committee vote on the bill and told him Idaho wasn't limited either to a federal or state exchange.
The man insisted on a third path: rebellion.
"That's really not a choice," Cameron countered Thursday. "I don't believe it's my prerogative to choose which provisions of law are constitutional or not."