The Legislature on Tuesday shelved health care reform legislation designed to provide coverage for the working poor and other needy Nebraskans after 90 minutes of often impassioned debate. 

A motion to effectively remove the measure (LB1032) from this year's legislative agenda, filed by Sen. Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins, was adopted on a 28-20 vote.

The result marked the fourth straight year that legislative efforts to access federal Medicaid funding available to Nebraska under the Affordable Care Act have been rejected.

Sen. John McCollister of Omaha, chief sponsor of this year's bill, said supporters will continue their efforts next year.

"Time will tell whether I do it or whether someone else will," he said.

This year's proposal would have established a three-year pilot project that could have accessed $1.8 billion in federal funding matched by a $63 million appropriation from a health care cash fund without any expenditure from the state tax-supported general fund.

Opponents of the measure argued that state funding for the program is unsustainable and would crowd out other state priorities.

Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha said he would identify "robust funding for education, roads and tax cuts (as) a higher priority than Medicaid expansion."

Sen. Merv Riepe of Omaha questioned whether funding should be provided to assist some Nebraskans who may have "led a life of bad habits and addiction" and others who might feel entitled to "a lifetime of Viagra."

Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion referred to the federal funding source as "Obamacaid" and suggested that the program would provide coverage to "a lot more people than you think who are sicker than you think (at a) cost more than you think."

McCollister said the bill would create 10,000 jobs in Nebraska, re-energize rural hospitals that now bear the costs of uncompensated care and fuel statewide economic activity.

But the deeper issue, he said, is "an appeal to the better angels of our nature" by providing health care coverage to needy Nebraskans with unmet needs.

"How can we turn our backs on our neighbors?" he asked.

Gov. Pete Ricketts said he was pleased by the outcome.

"I think we're going to have a new (presidential) administration next year and it does open up the opportunities for ways of working with the federal government," he said during a morning news conference. 

Ricketts said there might be a sustainable solution fashioned with federal block grants. 

"Is there an opportunity there to use some sort of idea along those lines?" he asked.

Tuesday's roll call showed seven members of the nonpartisan Legislature who are Republicans joining with all 12 Democrats and Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, the only registered independent, in voting to reject the motion to shelve the bill.

At the last moment, Sen. Nicole Fox of Omaha, a Republican who is engaged in a battle to retain her seat in a heavily Democratic South Omaha legislative district, changed her vote to no.

Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln, who has been the champion of legislative efforts to extend health care coverage by acquiring the available federal Medicaid dollars, said this year's bill was shaped to address objections raised by opponents during the previous three years.

"It's the most conservative plan in the country," she said, one that relies on the private insurance market and requires recipients to provide monthly contributions while placing no burden on the state's budget during a three-year trial period.

"Let us have an opportunity to prove that this can work," she said.

Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, who joined McCollister and Campbell in sponsoring the bill, said it would help meet the unmet needs of people who "work low-wage jobs, pay taxes and live in our neighborhoods."

Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln said the Legislature appears willing to "invest millions in roads, but not in the people who build them," and suggested some opponents of the bill are focused on political considerations.

"Nebraskans could care less how we feel about President Obama," he said.

McCollister said "the governor needs to engage with us in a good-faith effort to find a solution."

Continuing financial stress placed on rural hospitals in Nebraska by uncompensated care may be a factor the next time, he said after the bill disappeared from the legislative agenda. 

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or dwalton@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSDon.


Political reporter

Don Walton, a Husker and Yankee fan, is a longtime Journal Star political and government reporter.

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