Thousands of Utahns awaiting governor's decision on Medicaid expansion

Published: Thursday, Sept. 26 2013 5:35 p.m. MDT

Emily Young gets oxygen tanks ready before leaving home in Bountiful to attend the State of Utah Governors Health Summit at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Bart Combe doesn't look sick. He hardly even looks his age.

But Combe, 53, is sick enough that he lost his job as an industrial electrician due to an inability to work. And since losing his job, he's also lost his South Ogden home and his health insurance.

A kind friend has taken him in, but Combe has yet to find a way to cover necessary medical expenses for the progressing multiple sclerosis he suffers.

"The state has no option for single men without insurance," Combe said Thursday. "There's no program for us."

Similarly, Sherilyn Horrocks is looking for a way to cover doctor visits and medication that could prolong her life.

Horrocks, 61, is in the end stages of liver failure, which stemmed from a hereditary autoimmune disease that ultimately killed her younger brother when he was 36.

She works with a couple of doctors who have agreed to treat her over the phone, negating fees for office visits, and she shares medication with a family member who has the beginning symptoms of systemic sclerosis.

"I used to have good coverage through my husband's work, but he is no longer working. He's disabled. He and I are in a race to the end, I suppose," Horrocks said.

She jokes about moving to a country that offers socialized medicine just so she can live longer.

Combe and Horrocks are two of more than 120,000 Utahns hanging in the balance as state policymakers prolong a decision on Medicaid expansion.

Gov. Gary Herbert said he is still "weighing the options" to come up with "a Utah solution," which he said is unique because of Utah's younger demographic and other unique circumstances.

During his annual Health Summit on Thursday, Herbert praised Utahns for a lower-than-national-average tobacco use and adult-onset diabetes rates, as well as the lowest health care costs and being some of the healthiest people in the nation.

But, he said, "too many Utahns lack access to affordable health care."

More than 370,000 Utahns are uninsured, and about 123,000 would be eligible for state and federally funded Medicaid programs under a full expansion of the program, which is an option under the Affordable Care Act.

The federal government has said it will fully fund the initial phase of the expansion, beginning Jan. 1, for states that have already opted in. Reimbursement rates would decrease over time.

In addition to an economic analysis of a potential expansion — which projects enhanced revenues, more local jobs and a decrease in uncompensated care — Herbert has convened a legislative task force and a workgroup made up of various stakeholders and community advocates to study all available options when it comes to the possibility of expanding the state's Medicaid program.

He said the process has been deliberate, and that a "ready, shoot, aim approach" would be dangerous. A decision has been delayed time and time again for more than a year, but Herbert said he wants to "do it right."

"When we make this decision, it will be well-thought out, all ramifications will be understood, and it will include as many points of view as possible," he said.

And still, there are Utahns who would have benefited from expanded eligibility.

Emily Young, 44, always had a job and not only expected to cover her own needs, but also care for her aging parents. That was until recurrent breast cancer took her off course and crippled her finances.

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