Lawmaker pulls plan to delay Medicaid, CHIP coverage for new immigrants; poll shows most Utahns opposed mandating such a wait

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune Sen. Allen M. Christensen makes a comment during the Social Services Appropriations Subcommittee meeting in the House Building, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016.

Sen. Allen Christensen says he is withdrawing legislation that sought to require legal immigrants to reside in the state five years before they could qualify for Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

He had said his SB48 aimed to encourage self-reliance and to curb creeping “socialism.” But critics called it a mean-spirited attack against new legal immigrants, who are mostly Latino.

“I just didn’t have the political support I need for it,” Christensen, R-North Ogden, said this week.

A new poll for The Salt Lake Tribune and the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics shows that a majority of Utahns opposed the legislation — 53-40 percent.

Of note, among the outspoken critics of the legislation was Oscar A. Solis, the new Catholic bishop of Utah. He wrote to Christensen urging him to withdraw his proposal — noting that Pope Francis has said that “health care is not a consumer good, but a human right, and access to health care cannot be a privilege.”

However, the new poll showed that a majority of Utah Catholics actually favored Christensen’s bill, by a 50-42 percent margin.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bishop-elect Oscar Azarcon Solis speaks after being introduced as the 10th bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017.

Meanwhile, Mormons generally opposed it. “Very active” Mormons opposed it by a 50-42 percent margin; “somewhat active” Mormons opposed it by a slim 41-39 percent margin, with 20 percent undecided; and “less active” Mormons evenly split on a 46-46 percent margin. Protestants opposed it by a 53-44 percent margin.

Utahns who said they had no religious preference strongly opposed the bill, 64-32.

Christensen, the Senate chairman of the Social Services Appropriations Committee, earlier explained his bill, saying, “It’s a philosophical thing. Do we welcome immigrants and say the minute you get here you can have Medicaid when a lot of our people who are already here don’t? It’s kind of a fairness issue.”

Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, during the morning session at the Utah Capitol, Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015.

He also said he was fighting expansion of entitlement programs, which he saw as creeping “socialism” that hurt individual responsibility. He said, “I am trying to hold down on the Medicaid enrollment, the welfare enrollment, the food stamp enrollment — all of the entitlement programs — because I don’t believe they have a place in our society,” other than for very short-term relief.

State officials had said his bill would have stripped CHIP coverage from 475 legal-immigrant children who recently qualified for it.

But that still would not save Utah any money. The federal government covers the Medicaid cost for new immigrants to encourage states to remove their optional waiting periods, which most have done.

Lincoln Nehring, president and CEO of Voices for Utah Children, earlier said he could understand Christensen trying to remove that benefit for legal immigrants if it helped the state budget, but because it does not, he saw darker motives.

“His motivation is he doesn’t think these [legal immigrant] kids are deserving, or as deserving as other children,” Nehring said recently. “He is making a moral choice that legal immigrant children are not as deserving of health-care coverage as citizens’ children. As an organization that cares about kids, we strongly disagree with that.”

For the new poll, Dan Jones & Associates talked to 803 registered Utah voters from Jan. 15 to 18. The poll has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.