Bob Bernick’s Notebook: The Fight Over ‘Healthy Utah’

Gov. Gary Herbert tells UtahPolicy that his negotiations with federal officials over Obamacare and Medicaid expansion should be wrapped up by the end of next month.


He plans a trip to Washington, D.C., in mid-September to formalize agreements.

And, in a special edition of Bernick and Schott On Politics that airs today, the GOP governor believes he can work out the final 10 issues – out of 35 issues he began his negotiations over his Healthy Utah expansion alternative – with federal HHS bosses.

That means his “pilot” program to bring health care coverage to tens of thousands of poorer Utahns can be implemented.

And he believes Utah’s 104 part-time Legislature can be educated, questions answered, and Healthy Utah can pass in a special legislative session before the end of this year.

Herbert wants to do this because every day there isn’t a Medicaid expansion in place here means poorer Utahns are suffering medically, not getting the health care they need.

But on a strictly political basis, Herbert may actually be better off if some reluctant GOP leaders stall the governor and force a decision on Healthy Utah to come in the 2015 general session, which starts in five months.


Because it’s my guess that House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, would have a public relations field day over Herbert’s plan should he call them into special session.

(Under the Utah Constitution only the governor can call the Legislature into session; only he sets the agenda.)

Lockhart is clearly looking at a run for governor in 2016.

Herbert says he plans on running for re-election then.

Lockhart is retiring from the Legislature at the end of this year.

So, a Healthy Utah/Medicaid expansion special session – with all the media looking on and paying attention – would be a perfect platform for Lockhart to take Herbert to task.

In fact, it would be her last chance as House speaker.

Candidate Lockhart could start slinging at Herbert anytime over the next two years.

But then it is all clearly politics; she’s out of office and can’t influence actual state policy.

A special session over a plan several legislative Republicans have already said is unknown and too important to force through in an afternoon special session, well, that’s like opening a microphone and asking Clive Bundy to talk.

Who knows what you’ll get. But it should be entertaining.

Lockhart has already called Herbert an “inaction figure.”

She’s questioned why he doesn’t veto more legislative-passed bills.

And she says Healthy Utah is too complicated, and will lock Utah into an expensive, expansive health care program with too little study and understanding.

In short, she’s basically saying the governor is in over his head on this issue, and isn’t pushing Utah forward. Except perhaps toward a fiscal cliff.

Herbert can avoid handing Lockhart the limelight by just waiting a few months on Healthy Utah, and putting it before a new Legislature in January, sans Lockhart.

He’ll then be dealing with new GOP House leadership, one certainly more likely to use less rhetoric and political muscle against him.

But Herbert – to his credit – has staked out a position: He wants legislators to approve Healthy Utah as soon as it is formalized with the feds.

He tells UtahPolicy that it will take some time (yet unknown) for legislators to “come up to speed” on Healthy Utah.

He still has to negotiate some kind of work requirement provision with the feds – he feels it is only fair for those who can work to get state/federal money for health insurance premiums, to work. Or at least to begin looking for work to qualify for Healthy Utah aid.

He says Healthy Utah is a “pilot” program, in the sense that it will be studied, reviewed and up for change by future Legislatures to make sure it is achieving what it aims to.

But he doesn’t want to wait for the general session.

That will just further put off for poorer, sicker Utahns the health care they need.

All kinds of groups, including a coalition of religious leaders (without the LDS Church), have asked Herbert and lawmakers to either take the full Medicaid expansion under Obamacare, or at least do something to help the folks who are suffering now.

So, Herbert seems to say, politics be damned.

Full speed ahead on Healthy Utah – including a special session before the end of the year, not wanted by a number of GOP lawmakers.

Expect some political sparks to fly if lawmakers are ordered into special session by the governor.

We’ll know more before the end of September.