SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert's trimmed-down plan for expanding Medicaid appears to have hit a dead end at the state Capitol.
Hours after the Republican governor's plan earned key approval in the state Senate, Republican House Speaker Greg Hughes said Wednesday afternoon that the GOP-dominated House will not consider the governor's plan because it has no support.
"If you don't have the votes, I don't know the point of moving a bill through," Hughes said at a news conference.
He noted that there are two weeks left before lawmakers adjourn. "There are enough bills that are in the game, that have a chance, that need to be heard, that I don't want a topic to become political pageantry and we're just going to hear it just to hear it," Hughes said.
Herbert released a statement late Wednesday criticizing the House decision, saying it denies lawmakers the right to debate and represent their constituents while keeping money sent to the federal government in taxes from being spent back in Utah.
"The decision by House leadership to prevent the representatives of the people from hearing public comment — pro or con — and then voting on such an important issue is alarming and should be of significant concern to citizens across our state," Herbert said. "All Utahns deserve transparency and accountability from their elected officials, particularly when their inaction is, by default, a vote to give the federal government $800 million per year of Utah taxpayer money while getting almost nothing in return."
Herbert's plan is an alternative to expanding the state-federal health insurance program as envisioned under President Barack Obama's signature health care law. Herbert's office spent months negotiating with federal officials to secure a deal that he felt he could bring back to the state's Republican-controlled Legislature.
After weeks of negotiations and discussions, the Senate voted 17-11 Wednesday morning to approve the plan despite strong objections from some Republicans that it will saddle Utah with an expensive program that will be politically difficult to end when it expires in two years.
Last year, Herbert reached a tentative agreement with federal officials for the state to enroll thousands of poor Utah residents in private health plans. In exchange for making residents eligible for help, the federal government has agreed to pay most of the program's costs.
It mirrors similar proposals from other Republican governors pushing for a way to expand health coverage under the federal law while keeping it palatable to their right-leaning Legislatures.
The Utah governor's office estimates the program will cost Utah $25 million over the life of the two-year program. It will also bring hundreds of millions of dollars Utah taxpayers have sent to Washington, D.C., back to the state to be put to use, Herbert and his supporters argue.
Opponents of the plan argue there's no certainty about the cost estimates, and the costs to the state will be higher two years from now, when it will be tough for lawmakers to cut off the thousands who have been able to get care through the program.
"We cannot afford this kind of free money." Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, said Wednesday. "I don't know how we're going to pay for it long-term."
With Herbert's plan on its last legs, it's unclear what, if anything, the state will do to address thousands of the state's low-income residents who are left without health insurance or help paying for a plan because of the federal health care law.
Hughes said Wednesday that there's also no support in the House for a competing, significantly-pared down Medicaid plan that's still pending in the Senate.
Doing nothing is not an option, Hughes said, but he pointed out that there's no deadline for the state to approve a plan. He said Utah may find additional flexibility if it prolongs negotiations with the federal government to see if they offer states more flexibility down the road.
He did not offer a clear alternative, but said, "If there's an idea, if there's a way forward that someone wants to bring and you can find collaboration and support, great."
Online: SB 164: http://1.usa.gov/1DHgcur
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