Stephanie Grace: Jindal doesn’t make own health plan a priority

If someone just tuned in to this year’s legislative session in its final days, he or she might assume that Senate Bill 682 is a top priority for Gov. Bobby Jindal.

It is, after all, a grand plan to reform health care, the same policy area where the governor first made his mark. The administration’s health secretary testified cheerfully on its behalf in committee. Around the Capitol, people refer to it by the nickname “Bobbycare” — shorthand for its implicit goal of providing a Republican-friendly alternative to the dreaded “Obamacare,” a constant target of Jindal’s frequent op-eds and national appearances.

The bill, by Democratic Sen. Ben Nevers, flew through the process, picking up just a handful of “no” votes. It now heads to Jindal’s desk, and presumably he’ll sign it.

And that, our hypothetical casual observer might be surprised to learn, would be Jindal’s most direct involvement in its journey to date.

The fact is that although the bill offers a wide array of ideas to expand access to health care, it didn’t emerge from a serious policy examination. Instead, it grew out of something akin to a dare.

Deeply frustrated by Jindal’s stubborn refusal to accept the largely federally funded Medicaid expansion included in Obamacare, known formally as the Affordable Care Act, Nevers seized on a policy paper issued by the governor’s new national think tank, “America Next,” and pretty much cut and pasted it into one of his own stalled bills.

Nevers’ pitch for the bill was entertainingly over-the-top. Holding up a copy of the proposal, he told the Senate Health and Welfare Committee that “when I began to read it, I began to think about how valuable a plan like that would be and really how valuable it would be to implement it in Louisiana first.”

Jindal must agree, Nevers continued, because he “put it in writing and signed his name to it.” And “I don’t believe our governor, a Rhodes Scholar, would sign something without understanding what it does and how it helps our people.”

But while Jindal’s aides spoke in its favor, his own silence provided a big hint that he had little interest in embarking on the long, difficult slog of testing those ideas in Louisiana.

If there was any remaining pretense that Jindal intended the policy paper as a problem-solving proposal rather than a political document, it was dispelled at last week’s Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans. Asked about his refusal to expand Medicaid, Jindal never mentioned the bill that was already well on its way to becoming law. Instead, he said, “We don’t believe in Obamacare. We think it’s a mistake. We think it needs to be repealed. We think it needs to be replaced.”

Never mind that repealing the Affordable Care Act would eliminate not just unpopular provisions but popular ones such as lifetime out-of-pocket limits and guaranteed access for people with pre-existing conditions.

Never mind that, despite Jindal’s insistence that the administration hasn’t given states enough flexibility, other conservative states are trying to make it work. Indiana is the latest to change tunes, and its governor too is a conservative former congressman with possible presidential aspirations.

And never mind that Jindal used the same Q-and-A to argue that governors make better potential presidents than, say, first-term senators, because they can’t just opine. They have to show real results.

So, sure, Jindal probably will sign the bill, and his administration will dutifully propose a plan to give at least some of its provisions a try within current budget constraints, which are significant. (Given the vague language in the proposal, the Legislature’s fiscal advisers have deemed the cost of the Jindal plan “indeterminable.”)

Meanwhile, thousands of his neediest constituents will watch from the sideline and continue to worry about whether they can see a doctor if they need one and, if so, how they’ll pay.

Jindal’s got his priorities, all right. And even someone just tuning in at this late date should be able to figure out what they are and aren’t.

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