Hundreds rally after Utah lawmakers vote down governor's Medicaid expansion plan

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SALT LAKE CITY — Several hundred people gathered at the state capitol Thursday to protest a decision by lawmakers to reject the governor's Medicaid expansion plan.

A slate of lawmakers, religious leaders and people with chronic health issues spoke during rally that lasted two hours. The speakers insisted that the plan introduced by Republican Gov. Gary Herbert to help low-income people who don't have access to health insurance go to the House floor for a vote.

"It's not a laughing matter," said 29-year-old Stacy Stanford, a Westminster College student majoring in disability justice. She said she has amassed around $200,000 in medical debt after a car accident left her with chronic health problems.

"I am not alone is this spiral of poverty and illness," she said, citing estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that more than 40 percent of Americans have some kind of chronic illness and that fewer than 1 percent receive disability payments.

The governor's plan passed the Senate but hit an apparent dead end when a House committee voted it down Wednesday night.

Instead, the committee approved an alternative plan put forth by House Majority Leader Rep. Jim Dunnigan, a Taylorsville Republican. That plan would cover fewer people and cost more, but proponents argue that it would be more sustainable for the state.

They say the governor's plan has an uncertain price tag and may be affected by changes to the federal health care law.

Dunnigan's proposal would cover the very poorest in the state, using traditional Medicaid, and would help some other low-income families secure primary care and prescriptions.

But it doesn't provide the access to specialty care and mental health services that Herbert's plan does, which Stanford said Thursday was a critical difference.

The governor's proposal "offers everything I could ask for," she said. The crowd cheered when she told them that yes, she may need primary care and prescriptions, but she may also require a slew of other services like physical therapy, testing, specialist visits and counseling.

Several lawmakers appeared at the rally, including Salt Lake City Democrat Sen. Jim Dabakis.

He asked the crowd to cheer loud enough to remind proponents of Dunnigan's plan of their presence in the building.

"I want you to make the peoples' house rock," Dabakis said.

But Dabakis' "good buddy," Draper Republican and Speaker of the House Greg Hughes, said Thursday that he didn't understand the request repeated at the rally that the House bring the governor's plan to the floor for a vote.

He said that the rules require bills to be approved by a committee before consideration by the full House. Since the governor's plan was voted down, it can't go to the House floor, he said.

The governor was asked if the vote means that his plan is dead.

"Well I'm not dead. I can tell you that I will continue to fight for the taxpayers of Utah," Herbert said.

He said he will work with the Legislature on a compromise and is willing to call a special session if needed.

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