Former Lt. Gov. Bell to Lawmakers: Protect and Expand Medicaid for Utah’s Working Poor

Former Lieutenant Governor and current President of the Utah Hospital Association, Greg Bell
Former Lieutenant Governor and current President of the Utah Hospital Association, Greg Bell

On Wednesday, former Lieutenant Governor and current President of the Utah Hospital Association Greg Bell (R) told attendees and press at an informal meeting held by Senator Jim Dabakis (Democrat – Salt Lake City) that he was disappointed in Speaker Becky Lockhart’s decision to lump the Obamacare debate into the debate over Medicaid Expansion. “She was speaking to the members of the House,” Bell said, pointing out that the Speaker was trying to score points over the Governor when she attacked Herbert for saying he would expand Medicaid benefits in the state.

It is estimated that 123,000 low-income Utahns are too poor to afford private insurance, but make slightly too much to qualify for Medicaid under the current system. The Medicaid Expansion program would raise the qualifying income to 138 percent of the poverty level, giving those Utahns access to healthcare. “They are stuck,” Bell said, “below the poverty line, but not qualified for Medicaid…what reasonable proposal do we have for them?” Bell noted that the only options for these individuals is to let illnesses and wounds go untreated, until they become so severe they are forced to go to the emergency room—far more expensive than regular doctor visits, and the unpaid bills are passed along to everyone else in the form of higher insurance premiums and more expensive treatments. “It is estimated that 15 percent of insurance and hospital costs are just cost shifts from those who exclusively use the ER for healthcare…that affects you, even if you do have insurance.” Bell continued, after expressing frustration at the partisan sticking points he perceives within his own Party.

“I understand that there are ideological objections, but what is your solution for these people?” Bell asked the group. “Charity care is great to have, but you are never going to get donated brain surgery,” Bell added. “Nor do you want to,” quipped Dabakis. Bell was referencing a common talking point from many Republicans in Utah’s House, who have maintained for the last few years that Utah’s uninsured population could be covered by doctors providing free, donated services. However, none of these lawmakers have been able to produce a plan that would actually create a comprehensive program with charity care that would provide regular doctors office visits, medication, or emergency services through charity care.

Bell views Republican push-back as a side effect of Republican lawmakers never being directly challenged by their constituents to answer questions related to Medicaid. In general, he says, constituents misunderstand and mischaracterize Medicaid as a handout, missing the bigger issues surrounding healthcare for the working poor.

Democratic Representative Rebecca Chavez-Houck (Salt Lake City), who was also on the panel, noted that attitudes are starting to change, but that a critical mass of supporters is necessary to give Herbert the support he needs to ensure that, as she put it, the state “does what is right for those that need medical coverage.”

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