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Mobile Dentist Clinic

Dental director Adam Hodges, right, and registered dental hygienist Lindsey Taylor, left, pose for a portrait Feb. 28, in front of the mobile dental clinic at Family Health Services in Twin Falls.

Earlier this week, Rep. Fred Wood, a Republican from Burley and chair of the House Health and Welfare Committee, endorsed a ballot initiative to expand Medicaid in Idaho.

The ballot initiative is the result of a grass roots campaign to expand Medicaid, on the heels of a six-year failure by the Legislature to close the so-called “Medicaid gap.” Estimates vary for how many Idahoans fall into the gap. But either way, it’s not an insignificant portion of our friends, family and neighbors. The latest estimates say between 51,000 and 62,000 Idahoans are in the gap. According to 2017 Census estimates, that’s between 3 and 3.5 percent of Idaho’s population.

Rep. Wood has been consistently candid about his frustration with the gap remaining open. He continued shooting straight in an interview with Times-News reporter Gretel Kauffman Wednesday.

“The Legislature’s been struggling with this problem for years,” he said. “And I think that Medicaid expansion under the current program is the best way to address the issue of the gap population not having insurance.”

That’s a refreshingly straight-forward answer: Your state Legislature, while wrangling with the philosophical and ideological justification of Obamacare and government entitlements, has failed its constituency in this regard. So let’s listen to the people instead.

Last legislative session, Wood sent a bill back to committee that would have covered a little more than half of the state’s gap population, arguing that the bill had no chance to go anywhere this year. He liked the proposal, but he understood the politics of being branded a “Medicaid expander” in an election year.

But this is not a guaranteed changed of heart by the Idaho GOP. Just one month ago, at the party’s state convention in Pocatello, it adopted a resolution to put the GOP on record against the ballot initiative. The resolution was brought forward by Janice McGeachin, Republican candidate for lieutenant governor.

In addition to the most obvious benefit of closing the gap population — ensuring Idahoans can take care of themselves if they become ill — reporter Julie Wootton-Greener also detailed in this week’s Big Story a few benefits for health care providers that would come from Medicaid expansion.

At Family Health Services, for example, 41 percent of patients do not have health insurance, Medicare or Medicaid. For those patients — spread across the Magic Valley, as FHS has locations in seven different towns — FHS provides subsidized insurance for which the company makes next to nothing for individual visits. Under Medicaid, FHS would receive a higher level of reimbursement, thus better preparing it to serve south-central Idaho’s booming population.

Wootton-Greener also dove into the health care system of Corvallis, Ore., a city that, much like Twin Falls, serves as a population hub for a larger region.

Five years ago, using a waiver from the federal government, Oregon established regional Coordinated Care Organizations. The program focuses on caring for Medicaid patients earlier on, reducing the number of emergency room visits and hospital stays later.

Talk to any health care professional who is concerned with hospitals’ ability to treat growing populations, and that will be right at the top of their list. Emergency room visits are expensive and inefficient for everyone involved, and virtually any alternate route is better than going to the emergency room.

But for some patients, the hospital fills the role of a primary care physician. If health care providers can better serve residents in their earlier stages of life — like encouraging people to live healthy lives and receive yearly check-ups, which sounds awfully similar to the full-scale upheaval of how we talk and think about health care that many Republican politicians suggest in lieu of Medicaid expansion — everyone wins in the end.

The conversation around expanding Medicaid is sure to only intensify over the next three months. And Rep. Wood’s decision to back the initiative indicates that Republican politicians will eventually need to take a side. Are they backing Wood and the voter initiative, or are they backing McGeachin and the farther-right portion of the Republican party that refuses to entertain the prospect of Medicaid expansion?

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