Even with the numerous hours, days, and months that the Herbert administration has put into the expansion of healthcare services to those Utahns most in need, the Governor’s “Healthy Utah” plan was summarily rejected today by the Health Task Force under the leadership of Representative Jim Dunnigan (Republican – Taylorsville). This means that to advance the Utah Governor’s plan as accepted by Health and Human Services Secretary, Sylvia Burwell and President Obama himself, Utah’s executive branch will have to go around this task force recommendation when the legislature convenes next month. The possibility of that becoming a reality depends largely on Herbert’s relationship with the Utah supermajority’s leadership and the potential weight of a grassroots campaign already mounted by The Alliance for a Better Utah and advocacy groups like the Utah Healthcare Policy Project.
In a vote of 6 to 4, today, the task force decided against referring the Governor’s plan to the entire legislature and instead endorsed a plan that would be limited to expanding the Medicaid benefits to the “medically frail” only.
“Tis’ the season of giving hope, unless you’re the Utah legislature,” said Maryann Martindale, executive director of the Alliance for a Better Utah. “The Health Reform Task Force chose today to take hope away from tens of thousands of Utahns, just because they earn less… [The Governor’s] plan is both economically viable and, more importantly, the right thing to do.“
In a statement issued by Herbert’s office later in the day, there was evidence that arm-twisting season would begin in just a few weeks, once the legislators get finished with their holiday plans and convene for policy making at the state capitol. “Governor Herbert disagrees with the position taken by the Legislative Health Reform Task Force to support two proposals that cost the Utah taxpayer more money per person covered while covering far fewer people than the Healthy Utah plan would, all while leaving hundreds of millions of Utah taxpayer dollars in Washington, D.C. This is a non-binding vote and the governor fully expects the Healthy Utah plan to be debated by the full Legislature while providing the opportunity for public input. He will continue to work with legislators to that end” Utah’s legislative sessions are limited to 45 consecutive days beginning each January and adjourn in March.
The outline for today’s recommendation was advanced during the task force’s previous meeting on December 8, which prompted the Democratic leadership to cry foul.
House Minority Whip, Representative Rebecca Chavez-Houck (Democrat – Salt Lake City), asked, “Why are the goal posts being moved again? For the past six months [the task force has] been reviewing the status of the Governor’s negotiations as they occurred. Why were these other options not presented during that time? Healthy Utah meets three of the four principles the task force adopted in November 2013, by which we said we would judge the effectiveness of a proposed plan. We need to move forward with Healthy Utah. I am baffled that after months of negotiations on the part of the Governor, who was acting in good faith on behalf of our state, that we are not even including the plan as a recommendation to our colleagues. It’s blatantly unconscionable.”
As co-chairman of the task force, Dunnigan, himself an insurance broker, forwarded the recommendation that only 12.5 to 20 percent of those Utahns currently below the federal poverty level be allowed to participate in the expansion of healthcare benefits but only if they demonstrate mental illness, addiction or are otherwise too sick to work. The Governor’s Healthy Utah plan also has a “work requirement,” but allows for far more Utahns to participate beyond the incapacitated. Many are not convinced that the Governor’s pre-negotiated plan will survive the legislative scrutiny and debate next month, given the heft of Dunnigan’s influence on the matter. Utah State Senator and Dr. Brian Shiozawa (Republican – Cottonwood Heights), himself an emergency department physician at St. Mark’s hospital in Salt Lake City, was surprised by the task force’s concluding effort. Shiozawa said that Dunnigan’s recommendations “defy logic,” as well as leaving federal monies on the table instead of covering those in the 138 percentile of the federal poverty designation.