With strong bipartisan backing, the GOP-led Salt Lake County Council agreed Tuesday to send legislative leaders a letter urging them to support Gov. Gary Herbert’s plan for Medicaid expansion.
The council’s five Republicans and four Democrats spoke with unanimity about the pressing need for legislators to understand the human consequences if they turn their backs on federal funding and don’t support Herbert’s "Healthy Utah" proposal in a special session this summer.
Word that Jon Huntsman Sr. is interested in buying The Salt Lake Tribune prompted Salt Lake County Councilman Jim Bradley to withdraw his proposal for the council to ask the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the paper’s financial plight.
“That is very good news. We wouldn’t want action on our part to delay that,” Bradley said of the philanthropist/industrialist’s expressed interest in the paper. “We would encourage Mr. Huntsman to follow through. Two papers are important.”
Joan O’Brien, who is helping lead an effort by former Tribune employees to get the Justice Department to reverse a business deal that cost the Tribune half its revenues, said she would still like the council’s backing.
“I would love to see the letter come back before the council so you can express your concern about the agreement that spells doom for the paper,” she said.
O’Brien was referring to a deal last fall between The Tribune’s owner, a New York City-based hedge fund, and the Deseret News. In exchange for a large but undisclosed amount of cash, the hedge fund gave the LDS Church-owned News the Tribune’s share of their printing press and 50 percent of the Tribune’s revenue from print advertising and circulation.
Without the new Medicaid money, the county would have to cut services to 3,200 people on Jan. 1 because of a $1.5 million funding gap.
It would have to turn away 2,630 individuals from substance-abuse-treatment programs offered by 23 service providers. Another 570 troubled clients would be cut free from treatment programs if county contracts with up to 15 providers are trimmed.
"We have no rabbit to pull out of the hat at this time," said Pat Fleming, the county’s director of behavioral health services. "We have no other recourse at this point but to get this [information] out there. We have a meeting Friday with providers to lay it out for them. We have to give them time to downsize their programs."
Crafted by Councilman Sam Granato, a Democrat, the letter noted that cutting these treatment programs would end up costing taxpayers more money in the long run because the individuals deprived of services often end up in more expensive criminal-justice proceedings.
"As local elected officials with statutory responsibility for the health and well-being of the residents of the county, we urge you to take action this summer so we can have a plan for coverage in place on Jan. 1," the letter to legislators said.
If lawmakers don’t act, Mayor Ben McAdams said, "real people with real behavioral and mental-health issues will be cut from services. … There will be deep cuts. The public needs to be aware."
Rejecting Medicaid expansion will have a major impact on county jail inmates, said county health policy planner Jeannie Edens. While only 20 percent have health insurance now, Medicaid expansion would cover 87 percent of their post-release treatment.
That therapy is vital, said county District Attorney Sim Gill, to advancing ongoing efforts by the criminal justice system to reduce the number of released inmates who are sent back to jail for new offenses. Eliminate it and recidivism will go up.
"Those are costs we are paying over and over again," he said. "It’s a recipe for bad government when we spend money in that fashion."
Council Chairman Michael Jensen said he believed Herbert’s proposal, which is still under federal review, was a "thoughtful, balanced compromise" that legislators should embrace.
"When we say to 3,200 folks ‘you’re not getting treatment, we’re not going to help you be part of society,’" Jensen said, "it’s not a stretch for anybody to look at the human side of it and say ‘this is a toll we’re not willing to take.’"
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