Herbert, lawmakers leave Washington, but no deal yet on Medicaid expansion

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SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert and Republican legislative leaders said they were optimistic Wednesday after leaving a meeting in Washington with federal officials, but they're still without a deal or new flexibility to expand Medicaid in Utah.

The group said they still hope to reach a deal this summer.

Following their meeting with U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, Herbert and GOP lawmakers held a teleconference with reporters. They said they have agreed to examine ways that Utah can more accurately project how much it will cost to expand Medicaid.

State House Speaker Greg Hughes of Draper said several other states that have expanded Medicaid have seen far more people enroll in the state-federal program than projected.

Hughes said that could cause serious problems for Utah's budget.

Herbert, Hughes and state Senate President Wayne Niederhauser of Sandy said they hope to learn why those estimates in other states differed from projections and how they can get more accurate numbers.

With accurate numbers, the group said they can hammer out how much Utah can afford to spend in helping the poor get health insurance.

"We have agreed to start over and see if we can't build a program that we all support," Herbert said.

He said the group isn't starting from scratch but is trying to build a compromise between his plan and an alternative proposed by the Utah House GOP.

Their goal is to strike a deal that earns support from conservative state lawmakers.

In addition to Herbert, Niederhauser and Hughes, state Sen. Brian Shiozawa of Salt Lake City, and Rep. Jim Dunnigan of Taylorsville went on the all-GOP trip with the hope of finding a way to predict or cap Utah's costs. Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, is also working with the group to strike a deal but did not travel to Washington.

Democrats have asked to be included in the group but said they can live with the arrangement if there's public debate on the proposal later.

After state legislators failed to reach a deal earlier this year during their annual session, the group of five lawmakers, the governor and lieutenant governor pledged to find an agreement on expanding Medicaid by July 31. After that, Herbert would call lawmakers into a special session to consider the plan.

Herbert arranged a tentative plan last year with the federal government that would allow Utah to use a chunk of federal money to enroll more of the poor in private health insurance plans.

The plan was an alternative to enrolling more people in the state-federal Medicaid program. It mirrors similar proposals from other Republican governors pushing for a way to expand health coverage under President Barack Obama's signature health care law while keeping it palatable to right-leaning Legislatures.

Herbert proposed covering those earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $33,500 for a family of four. In exchange for making about 126,000 Utah residents eligible for help over two years, the federal government had agreed to pay most of the program's costs.

Herbert's office estimates the program will cost Utah $25 million over the life of the two-year program.

The governor's plan secured support from the state Senate and the handful of Democrats in the state House, but House Republicans rejected the idea in March.

They said the federal money may not be there in the future, leaving Utah on the hook for the entire cost of the program. They instead proposed their own plan, which would cover fewer people and cost more.

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