By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN – Omaha Sen. Jeremy Nordquist said two state officials have declined his invitation to attend a hearing Tuesday on the cost of implementing President Obama’s federal health-care law, and the governor has not responded to his request to send a representative.
An interim study hearing will be held on Nordquist’s resolution, LR546, which examines the fiscal impact of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also called Obamacare.
Nordquist said the state’s Medicaid director, Vivianne Chaumont, and Thomas Pristow, director of the Division of Children and Family Services, declined his invitation, although Chaumont sent Nordquist a letter answering some questions. Nordquist sent a letter to Gov. Dave Heineman last week asking that a representative of his administration attend the hearing, but has not received a response.
The governor’s spokeswoman, Jen Rae Hein, said it was her understanding Nordquist asked that Chaumont and Pristow attend the hearing, and neither were available. Kathie Osterman, spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, confirmed that neither would be available to attend.
Nordquist and the governor have often clashed on the health-care law, with the senator accusing Heineman of not being transparent enough in making decisions about the law. The senator also disagreed with the governor’s recent decision to allow the federal government to create a health-care exchange for Nebraska, saying he “ceded power to federal bureaucrats.”
Heineman said it would be more expensive if the state created the online marketplaces, where people can buy private health insurance plans subsidized by the federal government.
In July, Nordquist held a meeting on the health-care law, and the governor refused to allow his Medicaid director to attend. The governor called it a closed-door meeting.
Tuesday’s meeting is a hearing of the Health and Human Services Committee and Appropriations Committee — the only chance the two committees will have to jointly examine the costs and benefits of the law, Nordquist said.
“To have a robust discussion, we really should have representatives from the state there,” Nordquist said.
Heineman has said expanding Medicaid would cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars, because he doubts the feds would keep their funding commitment. But, Nordquist said, other states have projected hundreds of millions of dollars in savings.
“They’ve thrown numbers around … that they have not explained,” he said of state officials.
It’s up to states to decide whether to expand Medicaid to people earning 133 percent of the federal poverty level, from the current 100 percent. The federal government would pay for 100 percent of costs until 2017, when its share would drop to 90 percent.
Heineman has steadfastly opposed expanding Medicaid, saying it would require huge cuts to education and other state services.
State agency estimates for the cost of exchanges continue to climb: In July, a representative of the state insurance department said a consultant estimated the cost of a state-based exchange at $61 million to $87 million, plus $17.5 million in annual operating costs. That was a substantial increase from earlier estimates. On Nov. 15, the governor said it would cost nearly $646 million if the state set up the exchange.
“I don’t know where this new number came from,” Nordquist said, adding that the whole discussion of Obamacare has become so political that Heineman won’t allow his administrators to participate in a “thoughtful discussion” of the issues.
“It’s unfortunate if he has a personal issue with me,” he said.
Representatives of the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Nebraska Hospital Association and Legislative Fiscal Office will attend the hearing, Nordquist said.
— Edited by John Trump at [email protected]
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