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Hassan Calls Out Odell, Challenges Newport-Area GOP Senator on Medicaid Expansion

Gov. Maggie Hassan speaks with Grafton County Commissioner Mike Cryans before delivering a Chamber of Commerce speech in Lebanon, N.H., on Nov. 19, 2013. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

Gov. Maggie Hassan speaks with Grafton County Commissioner Mike Cryans before delivering a Chamber of Commerce speech in Lebanon, N.H., on Nov. 19, 2013. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

Lebanon — Gov. Maggie Hassan called on Newport-area Republican state Sen. Bob Odell to back her proposal for Medicaid expansion on Tuesday while lunching in Lebanon, the second day in a row she has targeted an Upper Valley Republican senator in advance of a crucial vote on Thursday.

The Democratic-controlled House and Republican-led Senate have edged toward middle ground in the months since a bipartisan commission was formed to study the issue of Medicaid expansion, which would extend coverage to 49,000 low-income Granite Staters. Hassan called the Republican proposal “unworkable” and expressed confidence on Tuesday that members of the Senate majority would instead get on board with the Democratic plan for Medicaid expansion.

“I’m here today to, among other things, ask Sen. Odell to work with us and come to the table and support a plan to expand health coverage that actually works,” Hassan said at a luncheon co-sponsored by the Hanover and Lebanon area chambers of commerce.

The two sides have agreed on the principle of using federal funding to cover insurance premiums for the expanded Medicaid population already on employer-sponsored private plans. But the parties are divided over how much time to allow for the rest of the expanded Medicaid population — about 34,000 people — to shift onto the insurance marketplace, with Democrats advocating for a three-year window and the assurance that other insurance companies would join the exchange before then. Republicans are arguing instead for a one-year window, regardless of whether other providers would be on the exchange. Both plans would require a federal waiver, and Republicans are more optimistic than Democrats that it could be obtained within a year.

Odell, who is considered by Democrats to be a key vote in the Senate, described himself on Tuesday as “a bit frustrated that the governor can go to a public meeting and challenge me and wonder where I’m going to vote.

“I’m one floor above her in the Statehouse, and I haven’t been invited to see her in weeks,” Odell said.

Nonetheless, Odell said he is “open to discussion about the time line.” He also said he agrees that at least two insurance companies will be needed to provide competition on the marketplace and keep down costs, but he stressed that could be achieved with an additional six months or less tacked onto the Republicans’ one-year window, as opposed to the three-year period sought by Democrats.

“Does it have to be three years, which is totally unacceptable to Republicans?” Odell said. “Or could it be one and a half years, or one and a quarter?”

Odell said a primary focus of Senate Republicans remains on securing the waiver from the federal government. He said it took the state of Arkansas only five months to secure the waiver, and argued that the Democratic governor and mostly Democratic congressional delegation would have more sway with President Obama’s administration.

“I think they can leverage the value of getting more New Hampshire people covered to the benefit of the people of New Hampshire,” Odell said. “I think that’s where we ought to put our emphasis.”

State Sen. David Pierce, D-Lebanon, argued against the idea that getting a waiver from the federal government would be less difficult for Democrats than Republicans.

“To say that it’s all politics and it’s just going to come down as soon as we file it I think is unrealistic,” he said. “That’s the underpinning of what’s going on here.”

Hassan made similar calls on Monday to back the Democratic Medicaid expansion plan, this time in the district of Meredith Republican state Sen. Jeanie Forrester — an area that includes the towns of Haverhill, Dorchester, Piermont, Orford and Orange.

Forrester said on Tuesday she was “a little disappointed in the governor” and her campaign tactics on Medicaid expansion. She argued that Hassan has “got to roll up her sleeves and get to work” on getting the waiver from the federal government.

“When she says it can’t be done, that the time frame is too short, she’s already wasted an awful lot of time doing things like going out and campaigning when she should be doing her job,” Forrester said.

Forrester also stressed that the Republican plan has been vetted by health care professionals in the state and in Washington.

“Yes, it is aggressive,” Forrester said. “It’s a challenge for her, but I believe if she wants to make it happen, she can make it happen. I just don’t think she wants to make it happen.”

Forrester, too, said she remains “optimistic” that a compromise will be struck on Thursday.

“Anything’s possible on Thursday,” she said. “I think everyone wants to work together to get this done, and I am hopeful that we will, because it’s important to provide a solution to our constituents.”

Bernie Benn, a Hanover Democrat and member of the House Finance Committee, said his committee had already done its part in compromising by adopting a GOP framework for Medicaid expansion.

“We took and amended our bill to this compromise,” Benn said. “I probably would have preferred not to have done that, but in politics you have to look at the ultimate goal.”

He said a compromise for a period longer than one year and shorter than three years might happen, but he added that it would be “foolish.

“I think the ideal is to do the one that would make it work, because we don’t want to have the problem of creating a Medicaid expansion and then finding out that the website doesn’t work, for instance,” Benn said, alluding to problems with the HealthCare.gov website that allows people to sign up for health insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act. “That won’t be our case, but it’s something else. We want to try and make sure we have enough time to do it properly.”

As others did on Tuesday, Pierce ultimately expressed confidence that a compromise is within reach.

“I just can’t imagine that the Republicans would go all the way down this road … all to let it just blow up over a time line,” he said. “That just seems unfathomable to me and unreasonable, and those are reasonable people. So I’m pretty confident something is going to get done.”

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

CORRECTION

Republican state Sen. Bob Odell represents the Newport area but is from Lempster, N.H. An earlier version of the headline on this story gave an incorrect hometown.

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