A Health Summit was hosted this afternoon by the Utah Health Policy Project (UHPP) to educate lawmakers, industry professionals, and the public about the ramifications of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). Expanding Utah’s medicaid program was encouraged, but some lawmakers are still leery.
About 150 people attended the health summit at the Episcopal Church Center of Utah in Salt Lake City, including Representatives Carol Spackman Moss, Rebecca Chavez-Houck, Brian King, Stewart Barlow, Jim Dunnigan, Senators Todd Weiler, Gene Davis, Brian Shiozawa and members of every health group from the Huntsman Cancer Institute to AARP.
“We want universal healthcare for all Utahns,” said UHPP board chairman Dr. Tom Metcalf. “We need to help our legislators to this. With the Affordable Care Act (ACA) coming, they’re caught between a rock and a hard place and it’s our job to help them understand how it can be done.”
Among the many proposals encouraged by UHPP, was an outline to expand Utah’s Medicaid program by slightly loosening up the income restrictions, allowing Utahns just above the federal poverty line to access Medicaid rather than paying for full insurance programs. Unlike standard insurance, Medicaid is designed specifically for lower-income children and parents, the elderly, and people with disabilities – financed by the government. In Utah, the costs breakdown to 30% from the state, and 70% of the costs being burdened by the Federal Government.
22 states have chosen to expand their medicaid programs so far, including Utah’s neighbors Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and North Dakota.
The Utah Health Policy Project is estimating that expanding Utah’s Medicaid program would cost roughly $80 Million per year, which would be shouldered entirely by the Federal Government for the first 3 years, after which Utah would begin to pick up part of the cost (about $19 Million per year).
But Republican Senator Todd Weiler isn’t convinced Utah is capable of picking up the tab, and as of now stands opposed to expansion. “It’s an illusion that we’ve got $19 Million lying around that we could put into expanding Medicaid,” says Weiler.
Governor Herbert’s Budget, released in December, estimated a $300 Million surplus, funds which will be divied up by the Legislature over the next 2 months during the session. But Weiler believes that $300 Million won’t really exist because Congress allowed the Bush Tax Cuts on people making more than $400,000 a year expire as part of the fiscal cliff deal.
“I think the surplus is going to be closer to $100 Million” says Weiler.” And $20 Million of that is automatically going to go towards plugging the hole created by the accounting error at the Utah Department of Education last year. Plus, if we want to fund Education growth this year, that will cost around $75 Million. I just don’t see where that money is going to come from.”
“Education growth” refers to the additional number of kids coming into Utah schools every year, and the amount of money it takes to cover them at the current budgetary levels.
Weiler also warns that the decision of whether to expand Medicaid will come from the Governor, and that if activists and interest groups keep pressuring the Legislature to take a stance, it’s likely they could end up recommending Herbert reject expansion.
There are several other programs in the Affordable Care Act that the Legislature will need to address this session, most notably the setup of Utah’s insurance exchange. Utah is one of only a handful of states that has elected to setup its own exchange, or marketplace of insurance options for the public, rather than let the federal government handle it for us.
The deadline to have the exchanges up and running is Oct. 1 of this year, before 2014 starts and citizens are required to carry personal health insurance.
Senator Gene Davis (D), who has sat on the state’s Health Care Task Force since its creation under former-Governor Huntsman, encouraged his fellow lawmakers and the health community to embrace the Affordable Care Act. “The ACA is the law of the land, and either we decide to create an affordable exchange of our own or the federal government will.” said Davis. “Either way, the law of the land is going to prevail because healthcare for every citizen is now a right in this country. If we can get enough citizens enrolled, we can bring costs down on everyone, and I’m very excited to develop something that will help all Utahns gain the [insurance] coverage they need.”