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Gov. Herbert hopes to resolve Medicaid expansion by summer

Published: Thursday, March 27 2014 5:51 p.m. MDT

Gov. Gary Herbert speaks during a panel discussion with patients and families who will benefit most from his proposed alternative to Medicaid expansion, Healthy Utah, in Salt Lake City, Thursday, March 6, 2014. Herbert said Thursday he is "cautiously optimistic" his plan for Medicaid expansion will be accepted by the federal government and he hopes to resolve the issue by this summer.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday he is "cautiously optimistic" his plan for Medicaid expansion will be accepted by the federal government and he hopes to resolve the issue by this summer.

Still, the governor said during the taping of his monthly news conference on KUED Ch. 7, that he expects the Obama administration to mandate some modifications to his proposed state-run "Healthy Utah" plan.

Herbert is seeking more flexibility in spending the $258 million available to cover low-income Utahns under the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, including requiring participants to work and share in the costs.

Last week, David Patton, head of the Utah Department of Health, and Wesley Smith, the governor's director of state and federal relations, pitched his plan in Washington, D.C. They were well-received, Herbert said.

Next month, the governor will travel to the nation's capital himself to continue the negotiations, but he acknowledged it may take more time to finalize a plan acceptable to the federal government.

He said his self-imposed goal is to have Medicaid expansion resolved by this summer. Utah is one of the last states to decide whether to accept the funds, which has worked in its favor, the governor said.

"I think our timing is good on this," Herbert said.

When he and other governors met earlier this year with President Barack Obama, the president said his administration was willing to give states more flexibility in using the funds.

"There’s clearly a growing understanding in the Obama administration for the need for states to have more flexibility, to be able to address their own unique demographics, their own unique political situations," the governor said.

The 2014 Legislature failed to back his or any other plan for providing coverage to Utahns earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, including those who don't qualify for any health care subsidies.

The governor said he believes his "common sense approach" will prevail in what would have to be a special session of the Legislature later this year to deal with Medicaid expansion.

Utahns are already paying nearly $700 million in taxes related the president's signature effort, Herbert said, and lawmakers will see taking the expansion funds as using "our money" to help Utahns.

He said his proposal had significant support in the Senate and was never heard by the House. House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, had slammed Herbert and labeled accepting the Medicaid expansion money a "trap" for the state.

Lockhart, seen as a possible challenger to Herbert in the 2016 governor's race, instead unsuccessfully pushed using $35 million in state funds to offer limited coverage through existing state programs that received federal matching dollars.

The governor said there is "always a little bit of tension" between the executive and legislative branches of government during the session, but, he said, "Vindication is not part of it."

He also was careful not to be specific about any possible vetoes. The governor, who has until next Wednesday to take action on 2014 legislation, said he had signed only 67 of the 486 bills passed.

The rest, including SB257, a bill opposed by education officials that would expand the duties of a statewide test review committee, are still being evaluated, including some with delayed implementation dates.

"We have concern that there was a rush for bills the last few days of the session," the governor said. "I'm concerned about lack of public input, lack of debate and discussion."

Also Thursday, the governor said if he decides to run for re-election in 2016, he will both participate in the caucus and convention system and gather signatures from voters to earn the GOP nomination.

Compromise legislation passed last session and signed by the governor established the so-called hybrid system to stop the Count My Vote initiative that would have put in place a direct primary.

SB54 allows candidates to choose either the caucus and convention system or gathering signatures to earn a place on the primary election ballot. But Herbert said doing both is a "two-pronged attack that would be very successful."

The governor said he expects most candidates will follow his lead.

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