At 32 years old, freshman Idaho Sate Rep. Brandon Hixon is the youngest member of the Legislature, and he's ready to tread where few veteran lawmakers have ventured: into the political minefield that is health care reform.
"Health care costs have gone up 400 percent since 1999. The average Idaho constituent simply can't afford it anymore," Hixon told Boise Weekly. "This is something I'm very passionate about."
And that's the chief impetus of the Caldwell Republican's first signature piece of legislation, which he's currently pushing through the Statehouse: his Idaho Healthcare Transparency Act, giving citizens online access to costs and charges for common medical procedures.
BW sat down with Hixon to talk about reforming health care, his controversial support of Idaho's health insurance exchange, and the financial struggle of being a young professional in the Legislature.
You're a fourth-generation Idahoan.
My brother, sister and I were raised by a single mom. We grew up very poor and she worked several jobs to make miracles happen.
Was there a particular event or series of events that triggered your political career?
I was involved in Canyon County's Republican Central Committee for several years and they asked me to be the chairman of the 2010 Canyon County Presidential Caucus, which turned out to be the second-largest caucus in the nation. We attracted every major Republican presidential candidate.
Did that night seal the deal for your own political candidacy?
Not yet. When then-State Sen. John McGee resigned from office in 2012, I put my name into the hat to replace him. I was one of the top three finalists [the post went to Sen. Jim Rice]. I didn't get that but later that year, I decided to run for District 10's House representative.
What did you learn from your Republican primary and general election experiences?
In the GOP primary, my opponent and I agreed on about 95 percent of the issues and it was quite cordial. But during the general election, my Democratic opponent went very negative on me. I was bashed because I had a few beers as a kid and I had a legal record [Hixon's misdemeanor convictions included the use of an invalid driver's license, urinating in public, two minor possessions of alcohol and violating curfew]. But having a beer as a kid doesn't make me a criminal by any stretch of the imagination. During the 2012 general election campaign, I never once said anything bad about my opponent or his party.
You were a member of the so-called Group of 14--House freshmen who supported the creation of an Idaho health insurance exchange, and everyone knows that an exchange wouldn't have happened without your support.
At the time, there was a lot of false rhetoric about the exchange. We, as a group of House freshmen, wanted to negotiate the issue in order to provide greater protections for Idaho. Yes, there were some legislators who were 100 percent against the exchange; but I always want to try to find a solution to that problem instead of just saying no.
What was the biggest myth that was perpetuated at the height of that debate?
That if we did nothing, there would be no exchange. But every single state that said no to their own exchange is now under the federal exchange.
So far, everything I've seen so far is that Idaho made the right choice.
Do you now think that the Idaho exchange is on the right track?
There still has to be more transparency. But the health insurance exchange isn't going to change the status quo of health care. We still need to get to the core issue of our health care costs going through the roof. And that's where my transparency bill comes in. Forty-seven other states currently collect data on costs, but Idaho isn't one of them. I'm looking for consumers to have unprecedented access to data showing the costs and charges for all of those common medical procedures that are performed in Idaho.
How would you vote on a proposed Idaho expansion of Medicaid?
I'm against it. The Medicaid program we currently have is completely broken.
But at the heart of Medicaid are people who can't care for themselves.
The average Medicaid recipient is required to pay a $5 co-pay when they see a provider. And right now, that's voluntarily being waived in a number of instances. The problem is that some Medicaid recipients are seeing providers a lot more often than the rest and not paying that co-pay and it's being picked up by taxpayers. Meanwhile, the middle class struggle with their own co-pays, high deductibles, a lot of out-of-pocket expenses.
The current base salary for an Idaho legislator is a bit over $16,000. How do you make ends meet?
It's not a young man's game. I worked with Liberty Mutual Insurance for a few years and had a lot of success there, but I needed to resign in order to dedicate more time to my public service. I went from a pretty good salary down to a minimum wage salary.
But isn't this why so many Idaho legislators are retirees or have sufficient financial independence?
I'm here to tell you that if the people of this state would like to see younger people in the Legislature, maybe it's time to have that conversation about compensation. I love this work; I truly do. But it's a lot of time and the pay just isn't there. It's a sacrifice for me and my family.
I'm certain that you know a number of young lawmakers who have had to leave the Legislature because they couldn't make it work financially.
What a sad story. Think of the bright ideas they could have brought to the Legislature.