Senators Pass Healthy Utah; Leadership Worried Session May End With No Action on Medicaid Expansion

Gov. Gary Herbert's Healthy Utah plan cleared another legislative hurdle on Wednesday morning, but that may be the end of the line for Medicaid expansion during the 2015 session.

The Utah Senate gave final approval to SB 164, which establishes Healthy Utah as a two-year pilot program. 
"Let's take this forward and let's do something," urged bill sponsor Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights. "This is one of the most important pieces of legislation we will vote on during our time here."
Healthy Utah has been scaled back dramatically in an effort to soothe the fears of nervous lawmakers. The program ends in two year's time and is funded by one-time rather than ongoing money. Even that definite end to the program was not enough for opponents like Sen. Diedre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork.
"I'm very concerned by the funding mechanism in this bill," she said during final debate. "If we are having a difficult time now saying we want to start this program, imagine how difficult it will be in two years to say we won't continue it. We will have people expecting these services to continue."
The victory on the Senate floor is likely short lived as House leadership has made it abundently clear they do not have enough support in the GOP caucus to pass Healthy Utah this session. 
That sets up the very real possibility that legislators may adjourn the 2015 session on March 12 without doing anything on Medicaid expansion.
"I think it's a real possibility," says Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe. "I don't want to jinx the chances of something happening because I think it's important we do something this year."
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, is also worried that the session will end with no action, but he floated the possibility that a compromise may be in the works.
"Maybe the result may be a modificationof Healthy Utah," he said. "We in the Senate will keep an open mind toward that. We are hoping the House will at least consider it."
One sticking point among opponents of the bill is that the Senate passed Healthy Utah at the behest of Governor Herbert. Niederhauser strongly pushed back against that perception.
"There's a lot of talk we are just kowtowing to the governor on this. That is not true. If we didn't believe this was the right thing to do, we would not pass it."
The impasse between the House and Senate raises the spectre of a possible special session later this year to deal with the issue. Niederhauser says he doesn't think that's a possibility unless the House shows some good faith before the end of the session.
"Unless there is some indication from the House that they are going to consider this and start negotiations, I don't see why a special session would do us any good."
Lawmakers have less than 12 working days to get something done before the session ends.