Two-thirds of Utahns support ballot initiative to expand Medicaid, poll says

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) A 2013 rally at the Utah Capitol in support of Medicaid expansion. A new poll shows nearly two-thirds of Utahns either strongly or somewhat support an initiative petition to put full Medicaid expansion on the state’s November 2018 ballot.

Utahns have shown consistent support for a Medicaid expansion, judging from polls over the past three years.

A spring 2014 survey showed three in four voters backed full expansion of the health coverage to about 120,000 low-income residents. Another poll question early last year, which noted a state price tag of $78 million, drew less support: 44 percent backed expansion, 39 percent were against. And a survey in spring of 2016 showed 51 percent of Utahns supported full coverage.

Now, a new poll commissioned by The Salt Lake Tribune and the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics has found 62 percent of Utahns either strongly or somewhat support an initiative petition to put full Medicaid expansion on the state’s November 2018 ballot.

Fifty-one percent of Republican voters back the proposed initiative, compared to 92 percent of Democrats, according to the survey of 605 Utah registered voters conducted Oct. 10 to 13. The poll by Dan Jones & Associates had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.98 percentage points.

“This has been a prominent Utah issue for the last four years,” said RyLee Curtis, campaign director for Utah Decides Healthcare, which is organizing the Medicaid initiative. “Poll after poll shows Utahns support some level of expansion. This is just highlighting that yet again.”

After years of unsuccessful efforts by some in the Utah Legislature to fully expand Medicaid under provisions of the Affordable Care Act, Utah Decides Healthcare announced earlier this month it would take the issue to voters, filing papers with the state for the ballot initiative. The group of five health care advocates included Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights, the Utah Senate’s only physician.

The group expects to receive an estimate of the proposed law’s fiscal impact early next week, a first step on the road to securing a November 2018 ballot spot. Utah Decides Healthcare will then organize seven public hearings on the initiative across the state in early November before beginning to gather the necessary 113,143 signatures, which are due to the state by April 15, Curtis said.

The proposed initiative — one of six that could land on next year’s ballot — would extend insurance coverage to low-income individuals and families currently earning too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford coverage under the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. Utah is one of 19 states that so far has declined to expand Medicaid.

The state’s share of the costs of the expansion would be $91 million, to be covered by an increase in the statewide sales tax from 4.7 percent to 4.85 percent, according to Utah Decides Healthcare. The expansion would bring about $700 million in federal funds to Utah.

If the initiative were to win a majority next fall, it could be threatened by the uncertain status of Obamacare under President Donald Trump’s administration and the Republican-controlled Congress. It was Obamacare that stipulated Medicaid coverage should be extended to fill in the insurance gap and authorized federal funds to help states pay most of the added costs.

While the Utah Senate and Gov. Gary Herbert have backed full expansion, the Utah House has not, in large part due to the uncertain status of Obamacare and the effects an expansion could have on the state budget if Obamacare were to go away.

“I do not support full Medicaid expansion because I do not believe that it is fiscally sound,” Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, said recently, voicing the concerns of many Republican colleagues.

Among the initiative’s five chief sponsors is Beth Armstrong, executive director of People’s Health Clinic in Park City, which serves the uninsured. Armstrong said while the poll numbers looked promising, she hopes they continue to climb as voters learn more about the initiative, and Medicaid expansion generally.

“You can‘t be for something you don’t know or understand,” Armstrong said. “Unfortunately, what I have found is that people really do not understand what Medicaid expansion would do.”

Armstrong said she sees patients daily who would benefit from expanded coverage.

“I’m a huge proponent of Medicaid expansion. It’s the right thing to do,” Armstrong said. “There are just too many people who have to decide if they’re going to have health insurance, or three full meals a day.”