Utah leaders criticized for plan to negotiate Medicaid expansion behind closed doors

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SALT LAKE CITY — A decision by Utah's Republican governor and GOP legislative leaders to negotiate Medicaid expansion behind closed doors has rankled some who argue the process should be transparent.

The proposal crafted during the talks will receive a public hearing later this year, but the key players need to be able to first hash out their differences and reach consensus on a plan free from public pressure and media coverage, said Marty Carpenter, a spokesman for Gov. Gary Herbert.

Carpenter said it's common for bills to be crafted and negotiated in private before they are introduced and then debated in a public forum. In open forums, the emphasis can be on politics more than policy, he said.

"It allows us to make sure we're talking to each other and not trying negotiate it in the press," Carpenter said.

After failing reach a deal during the session, Herbert and legislative leaders decided to form a group of six to tackle the issue with hopes of reaching a deal by July 31. After that, lawmakers would meet in a special session open to the public to pass the plan.

The group of six will be made up of the governor, lieutenant governor, House speaker, Senate president, and two lawmakers in each chamber who have spearheaded Medicaid talks.

The Alliance for a Better Utah, a progressive group that advocates for transparency, criticized the plan.

"What are they willing to trade, what's the quid pro quo going to be behind closed doors that wasn't able to happen in the public view during the session?" said Maryann Martindale, the group's executive director. "If we couldn't come up with a solution during the session, how are they magically going to do this behind closed doors?"

The arrangement doesn't appear to violate Utah's open-meeting laws, but a valid argument could be made that it circumvents the spirit behind the rule, said Austin Riter, a Salt Lake City attorney who specializes in open-records laws.

Another issue raised with the plan is the exclusion of Democrats, something Martindale criticizes.

Democratic Sen. Gene Davis said he's still hopeful that he and Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck will be included in the group. Davis said he made that request to Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, and he is optimistic it will be granted.

Carpenter said it just so happens all six of the key players are Republican, stressing that the governor is committed to making this a bipartisan process.

Davis said he can live with the arrangement because a proposal that comes from the meeting will be debated in public later. "Negotiations are negotiations, and sometimes there are tensions that need to be taken care of," Davis said.

The Utah Health Policy Project, a nonprofit that advocates for affordable health coverage, is also comfortable with it because the process has thus far been very open and public.

"The fact that we've been able to be at the table and having these discussions for the last two years, it puts us at ease with this the way that it's happening now," said RyLee Curtis, a Medicaid policy analyst with the Utah Health Policy Project.

Herbert, the Senate and House Democrats are supporting a plan the governor's office has negotiated with the federal government to use a chunk of federal money to enroll thousands of Utah's poor in private health insurance.

House Republicans lawmakers have rejected that proposal, arguing the federal money may not be there down the road. They have instead proposed a plan that requires Utah to pony up more of the cost while covering fewer people. House Republican leaders argue it offers the most stability.

On March 12, the final night of the legislative session, Herbert told The Associated Press that he wasn't yet certain if the group would be subject to open-meeting laws. But he added: "I don't think there's any desire to not have it open and transparent."

"There may be some need for us to get together and pound out a few things, argue about a few things and discuss really some of the hard questions. But I think the intent is to be open and transparent on this issue," Herbert said.

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