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Poor Utahns may go without health coverage until 2015

Published May 21, 2014 10:22 pm

State GOP balks; poor Utahns may have to go without health coverage until 2015.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

House and Senate Republicans appear unwilling to consider any plan to expand Medicaid until next year, creating the possibility that some 111,000 low-income Utahns who otherwise might be eligible for health coverage will have to go without, possibly until late 2015.

It is a setback for Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, who has been trying for weeks to hammer out an agreement to expand the health coverage, in hopes of getting a program approved by the Legislature this summer. It also pushes any vote on expansion off until after the November elections.

In the process, Utah will forgo $4 million a month paid in taxes that could return to the state for the expanded Medicaid coverage until some decision is made.

Democrats immediately attacked the stalemate as irresponsible game-playing.

"Utah need leaders," Utah Democratic Chairman Peter Corroon said in a statement. "One-hundred-and-forty-thousand working Utah families are without health insurance, waiting in limbo while our state Legislature dithers, dallies, and plays partisan games. Let's make it a slogan — Utah: we're doubling down on dumb."

House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said Wednesday that, while the entire Republican caucus has not voted on the position, House leaders believe the body would not support approving any Medicaid expansion plan in a special session.

"Remember, this involves a lot of money potentially to the state of Utah, to our taxpayers, so I think what you're seeing is a desire to do this in a general session environment, as opposed to a special session environment," Lockhart said. "This is almost what you'd call a permanent decision and it needs to be made very carefully and very slowly."

House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, said House GOP leaders are reluctant to "foist" a decision on Medicaid expansion on the body "to decide in an afternoon."

Senate Republicans met in a closed caucus Wednesday and Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, said afterward that, unless there was a proposal that everyone was able to rally behind, it would make more sense to take some time and address expansion during the regular legislative session that begins in January.

"This is such a big issue. This is not a one-day special session-type of issue," said Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, who planned to meet with the governor Wednesday afternoon.

Herbert said he understands the Legislature's desire for deliberation and to be involved."The appropriate way to fix the hole in the safety net and address the needs of the poorest among us is a decision of great magnitude that requires thoughtful and appropriate consideration," he said in a statement. "I'm confident we can find an appropriate process to give the Legislature the time they need to deliberate on the issue."

Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, is a member of the Health System Reform Task Force, which is slated to meet Thursday to hear about the status of the governor's negotiations. She said waiting to expand coverage risks the lives of Utahns who could be treated if they had health care.

"This isn't about politics, it's about lives," she said. "The continued hesitation to act by the majority caucus is simply puzzling."

Herbert had proposed using $258 million in federal Medicaid dollars to buy private coverage for 111,000 Utahns who make less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level — about $15,500 for an individual.

His staffers have been in regular contact with officials from the U.S. Department of Health to try to negotiate an agreement that the governor could take to the Legislature for approval in a special session, possibly as early as June.

It would still take several months to get the program running.

Delaying it until the Legislature meets in a regular session next year means it could be late in 2015 or even longer before any program is operating.

Lockhart and Republican leaders had supported a plan that would use state money to pay the health-care costs of some unknown number of the uninsured poor. But no alternative passed the Legislature last session.

gehrke@sltrib.com