In our opinion: Unfinished legislative business on Medicaid, and on clean air fuel standards

Published: Wednesday, March 12 2014 11:57 p.m. MDT

As the Utah legislative session comes to a close, there remain two high-profile items that could make a meaningful difference to families here in Utah: enhancing Medicaid and improving air quality through clean air fuel.

Matt Gade, Deseret News

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As the Utah legislative session comes to a close on Thursday, two high-profile items remain that — if acted upon — could make a meaningful difference to families in Utah. Mending the medical safety net would profoundly help more than 50,000 of the state’s poorest citizens. Also, the Legislature shouldn’t relinquish the opportunity it has to take a simple but significant step toward improving the state’s air quality.

Rather than lamenting a failure to act, we call upon the House and the Senate to pass these measures before adjournment.

MENDING THE MEDICAL SAFETY NET

No issue has been more thoroughly debated this session than whether to expand Medicaid, which could provide basic health care coverage to more of Utah’s poor. The basic problem stems from the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act.

Utah adults below the poverty line, who don’t otherwise qualify for traditional Medicaid, are now without any health care support, even as better-off workers enjoy subsidies to purchase insurance through healthcare.gov.

The House put forward a number of worthy proposals for expanding charity care. We’re also pleased with the Senate’s common-sense efforts to expand Medicaid to individuals up to the poverty line. The current version of SB251, by Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights, specifically empowers Gov. Gary Herbert to negotiate with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for a Utah-specific expansion of Medicaid. It passed the Senate Monday on a 19-6 vote. We support a Utah-specific plan on the medical safety net because it provides equity for the poor and because it enables more of Utah’s Affordable Care Act tax dollars to remain in Utah.

If the House fails to endorse this version, Herbert would have to present his plan to federal authorities without the formal support of both chambers of the Legislature. That would be unfortunate. Herbert’s plan is a sensible, well-vetted approach to helping the poor. The chance of it gaining federal approval would be enhanced by House passage.

We are troubled by statements openly casting doubt on Herbert’s chances of success. Although House leadership may be disappointed that elements of their approach are not being pursued, we believe they have an obligation to their constituents not to deter the success of the governor’s plan. Legislative leaders should put aside political differences and send Washington a message of solidarity: Utah can address complicated state problems in unique and practical ways.

CLEAN AIR FUEL STANDARDS NOW

On March 3, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued its new standards for clean air fuel, called “Tier 3” standards. They noted that, of the seven U.S. counties that benefit the most from Tier 3 fuel, all are in northern Utah. That kind of stark, factual evidence should be more than a wake-up call for the Legislature to act on Herbert’s recommendation to adopt thee standards in now. Utahns cannot wait until they are implemented by the EPA in 2017.

Tier 3 standards reduce sulfur content in gasoline to 10 parts per million, down from the current 30 parts per million. They also establish cleaner-burning emission controls on new vehicles. All cars benefit from requiring Tier 3 fuel immediately, but benefits are even starker when Tier 3 cars begin to enter the market. It would reduce pollutants by up to 80 percent: That’s like taking four cars off the road for every fifth one that remains.

Every year, inversions trap dirty air in Utah’s valleys and create an intolerably unhealthy situation for families, including children subject to asthma. On many of these days, Utah has the worst air quality in the nation. Utah lawmakers need to mitigate that depressing distinction sooner rather than later.

The House took a step in the right direction with HJR23, a bill that endorses the Tier 3 standards and encourages state agencies to adopt them prior to EPA action. A non-binding resolution, HJR23 passed the House on Monday, 55-20.

Even better is HB121 by Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, which would directly authorize the Utah Department of Air Quality to “create rules that are more stringent than corresponding federal regulations if additional regulations will provide added protections to public health and the environment.” The bill passed the House but failed to advance when it stalled in the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee.

Critics of Tier 3 point to additional costs associated with implementing Tier 3. That’s short-term thinking. In the long-term, it will be increasingly difficult to attract good jobs to the Wasatch Front without improvements to air quality. Given that vehicle emissions account for a whopping 57 percent of all local emissions, Tier 3 standards would have a greater positive impact on air quality than any other strategy currently under consideration.

It’s not too late for the Legislature to show solidarity on Medicaid and on improving air quality through clean air Tier 3 fuel standards.

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