Idaho and the new spaghetti Western

  • Gina Knudson


President Barack Obama may have won the national health-care battle, but Idaho Gov. Butch Otter is still loaded for bear. He’s proud he was the first governor to sign into law a measure that requires the state attorney general to sue the federal government if it tries to make Idahoans buy health insurance. Idaho has now joined a dozen states in an expensive lawsuit against the U.S. government, but Otter is not even slightly bothered by the hundreds of thousands of dollars we are likely to spend in court.

Otter explains, "The states, with public and private input, are capable of making changes to foster a better and more affordable health-care system. We no longer can afford to be complacent and wait for the federal government to make things worse and take decisions out of our hands."

Well, maybe it depends on where you live. Massachusetts, for instance, took matters into its own hands and now boasts the lowest rate of uninsured in the country at less than 5 percent. In Idaho, however, somewhere between 17 and 19 percent of the population is uninsured, and that’s before we even consider the growing number of people moving to policies with extremely high deductibles.

In 2008, the Governor’s Select Committee on Health Care alerted Otter that by 2012, family insurance premiums will cost $21,000 and individual premiums will cost $7,600. That’s not encouraging news for those of us in rural Lemhi County, with a median household income of $36,423 (2008 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau). Although we severely trail the state’s median income of $47,561, our insurance premiums don’t have any trouble keeping up with the rest of the state.

The consequences are measurable. Idaho has a law that requires counties to pay the first $11,000 of a bill for those who are uninsured and don’t qualify for welfare programs like Medicaid.  In fiscal year 2007, Idaho counties collectively paid about $18 million to help the poor pay their medical bills. Meanwhile, the state’s catastrophic health-care fund, which supplements the county bills, is draining at a rapid rate.

So one might wonder why Otter is worried about the federal government making things worse than they are; the status quo is already pretty dire. Are we really doing such a good job of providing health care to our citizens that we can make statements such as this one, which Otter said with a straight face: "Now the federal government has seized on health-care reform as its mission in life, which means we should brace for still higher costs. Largely missing from this discussion is the real work that Idaho and many other states are doing on their own to address health-care needs."

Otter must be worried that the federal government will take away what has become many Idahoans’ version of emergency social networking. Call it the "spaghetti feed." The spaghetti feed is the rural Westerner’s version of supplemental health-care insurance.

Here in Salmon, a scrappy town of 3,300, you can walk down Main Street and see any number of colorful posters advertising the latest charity benefit. We usually have several each week. The latest is for a young couple facing the bittersweet whammy of finding out that the young husband has a brain tumor and the young wife is expecting their first child. So community members will go to a spaghetti dinner and be as generous as they can. And they’ll buy raffle tickets to help another family who found out that their young son has diabetes.

When I first moved to Salmon almost 10 years ago, someone explained to me that raffle tickets were legal tender in the county, and now I understand why. This is how we try to make each other feel better about the fact that our neighbors – never mind ourselves – are only an accident or an illness away from bankruptcy. Never mind that these spaghetti feeds can’t raise enough to pay for an emergency room visit or a month’s worth of prescriptions. 
This, then, is our laboratory of the republic, and what Gov. Otter is cooking up in his laboratory is a recipe for disaster. Insurance that covers more than catastrophe is out of reach for a rapidly growing segment of Idahoans.

Where was this brave cowboy of a governor when the feds pushed Medicare and Social Security on us? Without that safety net, our senior population would be living out their last years without any semblance of dignity and security. But then, the spaghetti industry would be going like gangbusters.

Gina Knudson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( She writes in Salmon, Idaho.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Knudson piece
Bill Croke
Bill Croke
Apr 16, 2010 10:12 PM
The problem (and this hasn't changed)is that the old (actually the current) system is equal parts public and private and at war with each other. Obamacare will prevail because it will wear down the insurance companies, they'll get out of health insurance and nothing will be left but the public option. The lawyers will hold sway because there's no tort reform in the bill. In fact, there are no free market incentives in it at all. And 16,000 new IRS agents should be scary for any reason. The middleclass will pay a hideous price in taxes for this in coming years, and our seniors will simply die earlier thanks to Medicare cuts (though that may take pressure off Social Security). You only have to look at statistics in Canada and the UK to know that. Small businesses will suffer, therefore unemployment will remain drearily high for years to come. As for Massachusetts, what I see in the media (and not "the media")is that the system has such problems that its inventor, Mitt Romney, will have to do a good spin job to achieve the GOP nomination in 2012. Gina Knudson wrote a piece extolling the the worst-rushed through-media demagogued-backroom-hatched-politically -corrupt bill since the Fugitive Slave Law. And she smeared the governor of Idaho --a Republican, of course--for standing up for constitutional integrity. But this is the sort of piece HCN-WOTR looks for. It is well written. She earned her $200.
Readers Reply
Mick Dee
Mick Dee
Apr 18, 2010 08:59 AM
Interesting that Mr Croke can attack healthcare in such a vehement, almost spitting, tirade, yet defend Medicare and Social Security in the next breath.

Butch Otter has one agenda only, and that is to keep the welfare recpients in Idaho corporate. Federal funds and antiquated land use laws to benefit the ranching, mining elite will trump health care for individuals here in Idaho every time.
Apr 19, 2010 06:17 AM
"Are we really doing such a good job of providing health care to our citizens..."

Before 'The Vote,' the government was not responsible for our healthcare. Now it is -- well, kinda.

This isn't about healthcare per se; it's not even about health care insurance. It's about control. With The Vote the government now has the power to force you to buy health insurance. Can't afford it? Too bad. Don't buy insurance and you'll get slapped with a fine.

We're going to get taxed starting now on a health care bill which won't be enacted for another four years. (Nothing to see here but another accounting gimmick.) And boy will we pay.[…]/health_care_fact_check_will_he.html

"Q. I have heard that this new law will now require employers to include the value of health care benefits on our W-2s. Is this correct? If so, does this mean that we will now have the value of these health care benefits included in our taxable income?

A: It is correct, but with a major caveat."

Will health care be Butch's Otter-loo?
Apr 20, 2010 10:14 PM
Mighty fine article. Bless spaghetti feeds everywhere.

Y'all join us on FaceBook at 'Citizens for Boise Sovereignty' or 'Boise Sovereignty Now!'

Let's put an end to the following Big State Government mandates:
1. Eliminate vehicle registration, the first step to vehicle confiscation.
2. No more driver licensing, the means by which a totalitarian state government tracks you down.
3. End mandatory auto insurance. It's state government forcing us to purchase a product to satisfy their socialist agenda.

Offer still stands to trade fresh poultry manure for litigation; otherwise, we'll be forced to use local taxes to sue ourselves at the state level while we're suing ourselves at the federal level.

Remember, when we take ourselves too seriously, no one else has to.
Butch Otter
Idaho Native
Idaho Native
May 26, 2010 09:49 PM
Gina Knudson, you have it right. Otter is an embarrassment to our state, yet these republicans keep on electing him. When are they going to learn? We have another chance to redeem ourselves this fall in the general election. We have to start changing these politicians and parties for the same reason you change diapers and likely as often. Change them before they can do too much damage. What does it take for Americans and Idahoans to wake up.

Nice article.