Utah House advances Medicaid expansion for soon-to-be released inmates

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Gage King, an inmate at the Utah State Prison, delivers a speech at a meeting of the New Visions Speech Club in the prison's Promontory facility in Draper on Dec. 3, 2019.

The Utah House on Friday endorsed a different kind of Medicaid expansion — for inmates who are about to be released from prison or jail.

The House passed HB38 on a 43-27 vote and sent it to the Senate for consideration.

It would instruct the state to seek a waiver from the federal government to allow inmates to become eligible for Medicaid coverage 30 days before their release date — aiming especially to allow them to continue mental health treatment they may be receiving in prison.

“That’s when we usually lose them,” after they leave prison and treatment stops, said Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, sponsor of the bill.

While Medicaid now will not cover health care costs while someone is incarcerated, the bill would seek a waiver to allow that during their last month of rehabilitation treatment, which Daw said could help the state.

“More importantly, it allows for the ‘warm handoff’ between jail and rehab,” Daw said. “This makes that much more seamless and gives us a lot better chance of really rehabbing prisoners.”

Daw said no state has yet received such a waiver, although New York has applied for one and officials say its prospects are good.

Daw said a task force studying how to reduce recidivism calls the idea a game changer.

“It’s a huge gain for the state,” said Rep. Kelly Miles, R-Ogden. “We as society need to step up and help with that transition ... . Mental health is a huge part of this equation.”

The latest moves come after years of battles in the Legislature over whether and how to expand Medicaid — and after full expansion to cover everyone living in poverty took effect on Jan. 1.

That followed the rejection by the federal government of a partial expansion program approved by lawmakers in February, which itself replaced the voter-approved Proposition 3, which sought full expansion for the state.