House GOP Non-Plussed by Herbert’s Healthy Utah

Here’s a strange situation: The Utah House’s Medicaid expansion expert says it may be easier to get the Obama administration to approve the GOP Legislature’s expansion program than to get Republican Gov. Gary Herbert to sign it.

Hebert worked long and hard – and GOP legislative leaders give him credit for that – to get a variety of federal government exemptions for his Healthy Utah program.

But House Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, told a press conference on the Legislature’s first day Monday that while he hopes Herbert will reach a compromise with conservative lawmakers over Medicaid expansion, he thinks federal Health and Human Services folks may be easier to work with.


And this after House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said in the same press meeting he plans on working closely with Herbert administration officials on a number of issues.

“Politics is counting,” said Hughes. It takes a majority of the House, 38 votes, a majority of the Senate, 15 votes, and the governor’s signature, 1 vote, to get a bill or budget passed.

“If it was just me and the lieutenant governor” working over a Healthy Utah compromise, “We could solve it in five minutes,” said Dunnigan, an insurance executive who has become the recognized expert in the GOP-controlled House and Senate on Medicaid expansion.

Dunnigan is talking about Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, a former Utah House member, who is Herbert’s assigned liaison with the Legislature in a number of areas.

But Cox – who represented Herbert in several “frank” meetings with Dunnigan and other GOP leaders recent – has to answer to Herbert, Dunnigan said.

“I’m comfortable” that in the end, federal HHS officials will sign off on Utah’s Medicaid expansion alternative, said Dunnigan.

“It remains to be seen if the governor will sign off on that,” he added.

Admittedly, Herbert has a lot personally involved in his Healthy Utah Medicaid expansion. He traveled back to Washington, D.C, numerous times to deal face-to-face with HHS bosses.

And both Herbert and HHS officials say Utah has been given more flexibility and authority in Healthy Utah than any other state.

Herbert has started – or at least agrees with – a public relations campaign over his Healthy Utah, complete with local radio ads and newspaper op-eds, that push Healthy Utah and argue the Legislature should adopt it.

Dunnigan said he went with Herbert back to D.C. for some of those HHS negotiation meetings.

“And the governor did a terrific job” in getting the waivers he did in Healthy Utah, said Dunnigan, which is far superior to the Obamacare Medicaid expansion plan.

But legislative Republicans still have a number of serious issues with Healthy Utah – including its cost of an estimated $136 million and insuring as many as 195,000 poorer Utahns.

Last month a special legislative health care task force gave preliminary approval to a much scaled down expansion plan that would cover only 10,000 to 16,000 of the most needy, poorer and sicker Utahns.

Hughes says legislative Republicans are committed to work through Medicaid expansion over the next 45 days.

And while he can’t see the final solution now, negotiations will be done in good faith, with all ideas considered, Hughes said.

“We need some consensus,” Dunnigan said with a tired voice (and this is the first day of the session).

“I’m still working. I really hope the governor and Legislature come to that common ground.”

GOP lawmakers are well aware that many poorer Utahns are suffering today, and have been suffering over the last 18 months as Herbert put together his Healthy Utah plan and lawmakers refused to adopt the Obamacare option to Medicaid expansion.