Senate Majority Leader, Senator Ralph Okerlund (Republican – Monroe), was at the Capitol with other lawmakers Wednesday during an interim session that was filled with committee hearings and discussions about what the legislature should take on next January.
One of the hottest topics on Arsenal Hill is what is occurring between Washington, D.C. and the Beehive State’s negotiations on the expansion of Medicaid, all through the federal Department of Health and Human Services and Utah’s Department of Health. Because the expenditures for any such addition to the state’s Healthy Utah program are above a nominal amount, Governor Gary Herbert must obtain approval from his state legislators before making a final health care program available to the 111,000 eligible Utahns.
In addition to leading the State Senate body, Okerlund has recently had his own body to be concerned about. Late in the session last year he collapsed from an excessively high potassium level in his bloodstream, and as a patient of previous coronary stress, he was administered CPR on his way to the hospital from Utah’s Capitol Hill. “I was given CPR and eventually able to recover and everything is fine now,” the Senator told Utah Politcal Capitol at the end of Wednesday’s Public Utilities and Technology Committee hearing. “It was a close call,” Okerlund admitted. Senator Brian Shiozawa (Republican – Salt Lake City), an emergency care physician for MountainStar, was able to attend to Okerlund before he left the Capitol campus during that emergency.
After acknowledging his caregivers in both pre-emergency care EMS and a local Emergency Department, Okerlund was asked about his views on the Medicaid Expansion that is such a tinder-dry topic among the state’s legislators. At stake is available healthcare for those individuals in Utah who make too much money to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to pay for regular plans under the Affordable Care Act. Many of the lawmakers were briefed on specifics of the plan by Dr. David Patton, the head of the state’s Department of Health who addressed them on Thursday. It was a foreshadowing of the kind of “vigorous debate” that the Governor has said that he expects if he convenes a special session on the subject in October.
Okerlund was concerned that because some of the current legislators would not be returning after the elections in November, a “lame duck” session prior to January would be counter productive. “I don’t see how we can actually arrive at any conclusive results this year,” he said. Okerlund felt that the topic can be discussed and debated but any final vote would have to wait until the full body was ready to conduct business in both chambers of the legislature in January.
Though not necessarily a contradiction, this idea does run counter to the more rosy picture Governor Herbert’s office has been touting. Last week, Herbert announced that an agreement between the feds and the state was just two to three weeks away.
Additionally, Okerlund indicated that the Senate would only be interested in discussing those who are at or under the federal poverty level, and not the extra 38% as has been discussed by the Governor’s office and Washington. The Obama administration has indicated that those in the Medicaid “coverage gap” include more than those at the poverty level, which is why in recent discussions, the 138% of poverty figure is often mentioned – translating into more than 111,000 Utahns who currently fall into the so-called “donut hole” of coverage.
Other lawmakers in Utah’s House of Representatives have expressed similar concerns to Okerlund’s, including Representative Jim Dunnigan (Republican – Taylorsville) an insurance broker representing Utah’s most populated area in Salt Lake County. Dunnigan has publicly stated his general disgust with the provisions of the Affordable Care Act, and is a hardliner when it comes to the Medicaid expansion topic as well. “[The federal government’s] policy is incorrect,” Dunnigan claimed when the discussion tended to who could be included in the definition of the “medically frail,” and he was generally opposed to the idea of government benefits to the poor at all. At one point in Thursday’s discussions, Rep. Francis Gibson (Republican – Mapleton) was expressing his views and asking questions about the “work requirement” that the Department of Health has negotiated and became so visibly frustrated that he left the discussions.