Senate Republicans Fail to Come to a Decision on Medicaid

Senate Republicans met for two hours Tuesday on Medicaid expansion, but so far no decisions have been made.

As reported in UtahPolicy Tuesday, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, is leaning toward supporting GOP Gov. Gary Herbert’s Healthy Utah Medicaid expansion – an issue that is one of the most political and divisive so far in the 2015 Legislature.

In a press availability before the closed caucus Tuesday afternoon, Sen. Allan Christensen, R-North Ogden, spoke about his SB153, while Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights, talked about his SB164.

SB164 is basically Herbert’s Healthy Utah plan.

And Christensen’s SB153 is where the Health Care Reform Task Force landed, backing coverage for only the “medically frail” among low-income Utahns.

Herbert’s office has set up a link that shows the basic numbers – both those low income Utahns covered and the cost.

Looking at Herbert’s chart, the Healthy Utah plan will cover 146,000 Utahns by 2021 at an annual cost of $77.8 million.

Christensen’s bill by 2021 would cover 10,300 of the sickest Utahns at an annual cost of $28.1 million.

Christensen, who is the Senate chair of the Social Services joint budget committee, said if Healthy Utah is adopted this year it will suck up all of the Social Services added funds, leaving nothing for growth in other worthy programs.

Asked if Utah should even do anything for the poorer Utahns, who could get aid to buy their own private health care under Healthy Utah, Christensen said that was a good question.

There are “archconservatives” in the Senate GOP caucus that don’t want to expand Medicaid at all, Christensen said.

Between doing nothing and doing Herbert’s Healthy Utah, which Christensen believes is too expensive, is Christensen’s alternative, the senator said.

There are those who believe Obamacare should be fought at any time, in any way, some Republicans are saying.

Shiozawa, an emergency room doctor, said he’s become convinced that Healthy Utah is the best solution to a federal problem forced upon the states.

“What we have not talked about much,” said Shiozawa, is how much of Utahns’ federal taxes paid come back to Utah under the two bills.

Christensen’s bill would bring back between $320 million and $330 million federal dollars back to the state over then next several years, while his bill (Healthy Utah) would bring back $3.2 billion, the doctor said.

The difference “are taxes paid by Utahns” that if Healthy Utah is not adopted will be lost to Utahns, said Shiozawa.

“Of all the choices, (Healthy Utah) is not perfect. But it is the best choice among the options we’ve been presented,” said Shiozawa.

Niederhauser basically agrees with that, telling UtahPolicy Tuesday that Healthy Utah is the best way to make lemonade from the lemons Obamacare presents.

Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, who represents the GOP caucus, said after the closed door meeting that no decisions were made, and no timeline yet set by Senate leaders to push for a Medicaid decision.

However, Okerlund said he believes the Senate and House will reach some decision on Healthy Utah, or some other plan, by session’s end in mid-March – now just over a month away.

House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, suggested last week that the 63 House Republicans meet in a closed joint caucus with the 24 Senate Republicans to hash out some Medicaid expansion issues.

But Okerlund said that is not an option Senate Republicans want now. “We want to let our process to continue” – send the two bills to committee, let amendments/votes take place there – and then decide what to do when the bills end up on the Senate floor calendar.

If an impasse arises later, maybe the Senate Republicans will seek a closed door caucus with their House party colleagues later – but not now.