Backers file paperwork to put Utah Medicaid expansion on 2018 ballot

If wording is approved, proposal to extend health coverage to 120,000 disadvantaged Utahns will be subject of seven public hearings and signature gathering statewide.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Health care advocates Alan Ormsby, with AARP Utah (left), Karina Andelin Brown, a Logan resident; and Bishop Scott Hayashi, Episcopal diocese of Utah, deliver a proposed ballot initiative to fully expand Medicaid in Utah to the Lt. Governor's office Monday Oct. 2.

Karina Brown’s mother died of an acute stroke in 2013 — uninsured and just a few months short of qualifying for health benefits under Medicare.

A single mother with seven kids, she went without regular medical screenings and checkups for most of her life, Brown said Monday. She would talk with friends and family in the medical field when she needed it, but her mother feared that seeing a doctor would be too expensive.

Brown joined a handful of health care advocates on Monday as they submitted a proposed ballot initiative to fully expand Medicaid in Utah to the lieutenant governor’s office – a measure Brown believes could help others experiencing similar circumstances to her family.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Karina Andelin Brown, of Logan, shares the story of her mother, who died in 2013 without insurance coverage. Brown was among a group of health care advocates and others who delivered a ballot initiative to fully expand Medicaid in Utah to the Lt. Governor's office Monday Oct. 2.

“It was really gratifying because I know what that could mean for people,” Brown said Monday on Utah‘s Capitol Hill. “It’s being able to access primary care without fear of exorbitant costs and receive the care they need to be productive.”

The group Utah Decides Healthcare is backing the ballot initiative, potentially giving voters a say in expanding Medicaid to about 120,000 disadvantaged Utahns — after years of failed efforts to win approval in the Utah Legislature.

The measure would fully expand Medicaid to low-income individuals and family that currently earn too much to quality yet not enough to afford other coverage under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

If Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox approves the initiative’s wording, the campaign must then hold seven public hearings across the state and collect more than 113,000 signatures from registered voters to earn a spot on the November 2018 ballot.

If it wins a majority at the polls, the Utah expansion — which Obamacare makes possible for states — would primarily affect adults without children or other dependents, as well as parents who don’t currently qualify for Medicaid, or about 70,000 to 80,000 people in total. It would also extend coverage to about 47,000 low-income Utahns earning between 100 and 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or $20,000 to $26,900 yearly for a family of three.

The ballot’s expansion would keep intact the current eligibility standards for Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, with no caps on enrollment for either program.

Some Utahns who would be covered already qualify for federal subsidies, but may not be aware they are eligible or find it too expensive, said Jason Stevenson of the Utah Health Policy Project (UHPP). In 2016, the uninsured rate for these Utahns was 16.8 percent, almost double the state average of 8.8 percent.

The state’s share of the expansion costs would be $91 million per year, to be covered by a statewide increase in the sales tax from 4.7 to 4.85 percent, according to Utah Decides Healthcare. Additional costs from the expansion would be covered by the federal government, for about $804 million a year.

The Medicaid proposition is vying for a 2018 ballot spot amid four other citizen initiatives, including measures to legalize medical use of marijuana; boost sales and income taxes to better fund public schools; create an independent commission for redistricting; and require direct primary elections for party nominees.

Even if the Medicaid measure wins in 2018, its effects could be short lived if Congress repeals Obamacare. Despite’ several attempts to repeal the law, Matthew Slonaker, executive director of the UHPP, said Monday he is confident that Obamacare is here to stay.

“We want to maximize Medicaid expansion and give those dollars to Utah to make sure folks are covered,” he said.