Herbert: No Special Session on Medicaid Expansion Alternative

There will be no special legislative session this year to consider Gov. Gary Herbert’s Healthy Utah alternative to Medicaid expansion.

Herbert announced that decision at his monthly media news conference in the studios of KUED Channel 7.

Previously, Herbert, who under the state Constitution is the only person who can call a special session, and he sets session agendas, was adamant that he planned to call such a session before lawmakers meet in general session in late January.

But Thursday he gave up the ghost.

GOP legislative leaders – particularly House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo – have been saying for months that they didn’t want Herbert to call a Medicaid expansion special session this year.

Lockhart argued that Medicaid expansion was too important an issue, had far-reaching implications, and was too costly a decision to make in a time-short special session.

In an opening statement to his half-hour press conference, Herbert, a Republican who plans to seek re-election in 2016, said he had heard enough good ideas from individual legislators that may or may not be incorporated into his Healthy Utah alternative, that there just isn’t enough time to deal with it before the annual general session, which will start Jan 26 and run for 45 consecutive days.

A number of Utah politicos didn’t see why Herbert didn’t give up on a special session for Healthy Utah months ago. It didn’t make a lot of political sense, and seemed to be just alienating his Republican base in the Legislature.

If it is a win for House and Senate GOP leaders, it’s a small one.

They will still have to deal with Healthy Utah – just in the 45-day 2015 Legislature, which will adjourn in mid-March.

And if Herbert comes to them in January with a detailed plan to provide private insurance for poorer Utahns, already approved by the Obama administration’s Health and Human Services Department, it will be difficult to amend that program – since that would just throw the whole issue back to the feds of more waivers.

Herbert said his Healthy Utah plan provides flexibility – more than any other state has been given by the feds – and is the best alternative he’s seen.

Lockhart and her 61-member GOP caucus are still talking about some alternatives to Healthy Utah or accepting Obama’s Medicaid expansion.

But those alternatives have not been fleshed out.

There’s grumbling – especially in the House GOP caucus – that Healthy Utah has problems and may cover too many people, and will not require all recipients to hold down jobs or lose their health coverage.

But Obama officials would not budge on Herbert’s desire that any Healthy Utah recipient would, at some point, have to hold a job or lose benefits.

The best he could get from the feds is that able-bodied Healthy Utah recipients would have to accept job training and rehabilitation AIMED at getting them jobs – but when push comes to shove obstinate non-workers could still stay on Healthy Utah.

Herbert said that Utahns will, collectively, pay more than $680 million more for Obamacare – or the Affordable Care Act – and will receive back $258 million from the feds for Medicaid expansion.

Under Healthy Utah we’ll still pay $680 million more (we can’t get out of that), and we’ll still get back $258 million. But that $258 million will be spent like Utahns (via Healthy Utah) want it spent, not like the Obamacare Medicaid expansion requires.

That is a big win, said Herbert.

And while he’s seen griping and complaints about Healthy Utah, there is no other plan out there with federal waivers that gives Utah so much flexibility in dealing with her own poorer Utahns who need health care.

Key to the Legislature’s acceptance of Healthy Utah is that it is a pilot program that can be modified over several years to better make it accommodate how Utahns want to help the poor, sick among us, Herbert said.

In response to a UtahPolicy question, Herbert said no lawmaker had told him they would boycott or quickly vote down Healthy Utah should he call the Legislature into special session.

But he came to realize that with the mandatory 30-day public comment period required by the feds, and the upcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, there just wasn’t enough time to hold a special session this year.

On other topics:

— Herbert reiterated his stance that he’s disappointed the U.S. Supreme Court refused to accept Utah’s same-sex marriage ban appeal.

— He’s not in favor of Sen. Steve Urquhart’s bill that would create a statewide ban on discriminating against gays and lesbians in employment and housing.

About 20 local governments have adopted such a ban, and Herbert says it makes sense to him to have local governments, not the Legislature, outlaw such discrimination.

— He said he doesn’t know enough, yet, to take a position on Sen. Orrin Hatch’s bill that would expand the current defense bombing and testing range out in Utah’s west desert.

The feds want to increase the range’s size by 700,000 acres, or 1,000 square miles.

“We have to do our due diligence” to make sure nearby Native American lands and private lands are not unduly impacted.

— He believes the old Utah State Prison at the Point of the Mountain should be moved.

He hasn’t been briefed on the four locations recently whittled down by the Legislature’s Prison Relocation Commission.

UtahPolicy and the Deseret News have learned that of those four sites, one is in northern Utah County and three in Salt Lake County – with the preferred site out by the Salt Lake International Airport.

Even though the prison may be moved only five miles to 30 miles from the current site, that would still be better long-term for state corrections, said Herbert.

And relocating businesses on to the old 700-acre site may cost $450 million, but will bring long-term economic benefits to the state and local governments.

— Herbert said he’s willing to look at changing laws on imprisoning low-level drug users, which could cut down on the number of beds needed in the new prison.

He’s less optimistic about rehabilitating sex offenders, who now make up nearly half of the prison population.