Thursday night, the bipartisan team of Senators Jim Dabakis (Democrat – Salt Lake City) and Brian Shiozawa (Republican – Salt Lake City) told a group of Utahns who are in the so-called “Medicaid gap,” that they plan to support Governor Herbert’s (Republican) plan to solve one of Utah’s most pressing problems. They said this unique approach will allow hope for the 111,000 Utahns who are under-served by the present healthcare system in the state.
The “Medicaid gap” is a term used for low-income Utahns who live just above the poverty line—their incomes being slightly too high to qualify for Medicaid, but too low to afford private health insurance. Under the proposal from Governor Herbert, the state would accept some federal funding to raise the income level requirements, allowing poor Utahns to qualify for Medicaid and get the health insurance they desperately need. Many conservatives have balked at the idea of accepting federal tax dollars, while moderates and liberals argue that not providing access to Medicaid forces these Utahns to rely on the emergency room for care—which is much more expensive and causes insurance and hospital rates to increase for everyone.
At the event put on by Dabakis and Shiozawa, 12 Utahns who are in the Medicaid gap told their stories and how they have been affected by not having a comprehensive solution to healthcare. The 12 offered heart-wrenching testimony of how their lives have been upended by severe, and serious medical conditions which have ravaged their finances, physical health, or, as in the case of one 14 year-old whose mother is in the gap, that of their loved ones.
At the meeting, Shiozawa—an emergency room physician by trade—announced he is proposing a legislative mechanism with the help of Dabakis which will allow Governor Gary Herbert (Republican) to return to Washington to apply for “what amounts to full expansion of Medicaid in the form of a block grant,” that will serve Utah’s unique healthcare marketplace and all of its citizens. “The Governor has asked [lawmakers] to do two things,” Shizawa said. “One: to not tie his hands, and two: to give him the full backing of the legislature.” The amendment will be introduced to Senator Shiozawa’s SB 251 and is available for review, to meet these goals.
Representative Brian King (Democrat – Salt Lake City) attended the meeting to listen to the stories of the low-income citizens, and said he felt that getting the House to agree to the changes might be a tall order, especially with only five remaining days in the 2014 legislative session. “Unless my colleagues in the House can overcome their ideological rigidity, we may still not be able to accommodate the Governor’s request without a special session,” King said. A “special session” is when the Governor calls lawmakers back into session outside of the normal 45 day legislative session.
Governor Herbert has already indicated he would be willing to call the legislature back to work on this issue.
Jenn Dailey, an advocate with the Utah Academy of Family Physicians, said she is eager to see the details and that she thought this kind of approach could solve the “access issue.” Many patients cannot be seen by those physicians who have decided not to work with a system that has yet to be fully developed. “If this tailored approach to the expansion was shown to be successful here, perhaps states like Idaho would take some notice and do it the Utah way.” Dailey also noted that between Intermountain Healthcare and SelectHealth, the largest private health insurance carriers in the area, more than 32,000 people are employed throughout the Intermountain West. For them, and for those who testified at Thursday night’s capitol hearing, the stakes couldn’t be higher.