SALT LAKE CITY — State lawmakers held the first public hearing Tuesday evening on a new plan to help thousands of Utah's poor get health insurance by expanding Medicaid. They didn't take any action on the plan, however, after hearing hours of testimony from doctors, advocates for the poor and more.
The proposal would help poor residents get health insurance mostly through private insurance plans. Doctors, hospitals and others would help pay the state's cost through higher taxes and fees.
Lawmakers on the health reform committee are still absorbing the plan Tuesday and aren't ready to vote on it, said Taylorsville Republican Rep. Jim Dunnigan, a co-chair of the committee. Republicans in Utah's House of Representatives will meet next Tuesday behind closed doors, where they will be polled on their support for the plan.
Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican who helped craft the plan in secret meetings with other GOP officials this summer, said he will call a special legislative session this year to pass the proposal, but no date has been set.
During the four-hour public hearing on the proposal Tuesday, more than 115 people signed up to speak and filled two overflow rooms. Lawmakers only fit in dozens of people during a public comment portion and limited each speaker to two minutes.
Doctors, surgeons and others spoke against the proposal, staying medical providers shouldn't be required to help pay for expanding a government program. Under the plan, licensing fees that doctors pay every other year would jump to about $800, up from about $250.
Utah Medical Association CEO Michelle McOmber said it would create extra pressure on doctors as the state faces a physician shortage.
The group of six Republicans who came up with the plan say doctors, hospitals and other providers will benefit by having more insured patients, and therefore they should help pay Utah's costs.
Those costs are in addition to about $450 million the federal government would kick in under President Barack Obama's 2010 health care law.
Sen. Brian Shiozawa, a Salt Lake City Republican who helped craft the plan, said that as a doctor himself, he has concerns about taxing physicians. Shiozawa worried it could hurt rural doctors or new doctors struggling to get their practices up and running.
But Shiozawa said the state still has to do something to address thousands of Utah's poor who, because of a flaw in the health care law, are currently ineligible for Medicaid and cannot get federal help paying for insurance. Utah's plan would cover those earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, which is about $33,000 a year for a family of four.
Melinda Turner, a 33-year-old from Provo, told lawmakers that she struggles with fibromyalgia and various other medical issues that make it difficult for her to work and earn more than about $7,000 a year. She lives with two parents on Social Security and is not old or sick enough to quality for other government health programs, Turner said.
She urged lawmakers to expand Medicaid to help people like her.
"Literally my entire income goes to pay for medical insurance," she said. "If it weren't for my parents, I would be dead."
If Utah lawmakers sign off on the Medicaid plan, they will send it to federal health officials, who must also approve it.
The earliest the plan could start would be next summer, lawmakers said.
Democrats and advocacy groups have complained that Utah's Republican-dominated Legislature wasted time and money by failing to expand the program years ago, when the federal government first offered the money.
There is no deadline to approve a Medicaid plan, but Utah misses out on federal money and thousands of its residents remain unable to afford insurance unless the state expands Medicaid.