Stephanie Grace: Nevers asks: Why not try Jindal plan at home?

It will probably never reach the point where it expands access to medical coverage or otherwise solves any of the state’s health care woes. But as a purely political maneuver, state Sen. Ben Nevers’ riff on Gov. Bobby Jindal’s recently unveiled, think-tank-produced health reform manifesto amounts to a minor masterpiece.

Nevers introduced his bill, basically a cut-and-paste version of the document Jindal is promoting through his new Virginia-based think tank, America Next, before the Senate Health and Welfare Committee on Wednesday. And while the governor wasn’t there, the Bogalusa small-businessman with the leisurely drawl still managed to run circles around the fast-talking brainiac with the big ambitions.

On the surface, it was a kumbaya moment, but one with a lot of subtext: Jindal’s been busy writing op-eds, giving out-of-state speeches, first crossing his fingers that the feds wouldn’t reject his plan to privatize state hospitals and now hoping to win on appeal, or at least delay reckoning until he’s safely out of office — and yes, promoting his ideas to a national audience. Why not try putting those good ideas to a test at home, the senator simply asked?

And, so, Nevers, who’d failed to convince his colleagues to override Jindal’s refusal to expand Medicaid, pitched a substitute that he figured everyone could agree on. Certainly, the governor could. After all, as he kept reminding the committee, it’s his own plan!

Holding up a copy, Nevers zeroed in on Jindal’s signature.

“I don’t believe our governor, a Rhodes Scholar, would sign something without understanding what it does and how it helps our people,” he explained. He hasn’t had the chance to ask, though; Nevers said afterward that the two have never spoken about the matter.

Still, Jindal’s Department of Health and Hospitals Secretary Kathy Kliebert testified at Nevers’ request and endorsed the approach as “a conservative alternative to the Affordable Care Act.” Nobody spoke in opposition, which committee chairman David Heitmeier called historic, and the panel adopted it without objection.

It was a rare legislative victory for an oddball in Southern politics these days, a white Democrat from a largely rural district. Nevers is no party-line guy — he is, for instance, an avid abortion opponent, and he authored the law that his party has been trying to overturn for years, which allows for the teaching of so-called intelligent design alongside evolution in public schools. But in this, his final go-round before term limits end his career, Nevers is on something of a crusade to find ways to ease the burden on struggling Louisiana residents.

Predictably given the Legislature’s overall leanings, most of his efforts have come to naught. There will be no increase in the state’s minimum wage, and the fight for new protections for those who take out high-interest payday loans remains uphill. And despite several attempts, the Legislature will not allow a statewide referendum on whether to override Jindal’s refusal to accept billions from the federal government to expand Medicaid.

This one may make it through, judging by the committee’s response, but that doesn’t mean it will take hold.

The bill is wide-ranging and calls for everything from forming high-risk insurance pools, providing subsidies for low-income residents and expanding policy options to creating health savings accounts and cracking down on fraud and lawsuit abuse. But there’s precious little information on how much it would cost, and not much chance at all that the feds would issue the block grants it calls for, at least without lengthy negotiations.

The bill calls for a plan of action by September, which is a seriously tight time frame considering the proposal’s broad scope. And it’s not even clear whether the ideas would meet Nevers’ aim of expanding coverage and helping low-income people. The Louisiana Budget Project, a progressive think tank that has supported most of his doomed agenda, ran some numbers and suggested it wouldn’t.

The bottom line is that Nevers’ bill is not so much a serious proposal as a vehicle to make a point.

He got to wonder aloud, in an interview after the vote, why the governor would “submit a plan to the whole country” that he hasn’t even tried to implement in his own state. He got to draw an implicit comparison by insisting his effort has nothing to do with party or personal ambition.

“It doesn’t matter to me whoever’s plan it is,” he said. “It’s not about partisan politics. It’s not about anything else but to provide the services we need.”

He even got to come up with a cheeky take on the name of the governor’s Virginia-based think tank. He called his proposal “Louisiana First America Next.”

Asked whether the bill’s schedule for developing a plan and negotiating it with the feds is at all realistic, Nevers answered by reframing the query.

“My question is, why haven’t we submitted the plan already?” he said.

Good question, even if it’s rhetorical. Everyone who’s been following Jindal’s latest adventures can answer that one.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs.the advocate.com/gracenotes. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.