SALT LAKE CITY — A House committee failed to push forward Gov. Gary Herbert's Healthy Utah alternative to Medicaid expansion Wednesday night, but the sponsor of the legislation said he still hopes to reach a compromise.
"This issue is not over," bill sponsor Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights, told reporters after the House Business and Labor Committee voted down by a 4-9 margin an attempt to send SB164, which has already passed the Senate, to the full House.
But the committee later voted 9-4 in favor of HB446, the House leadership's counter proposal to Healthy Utah, a more limited coverage plan called Utah Cares sponsored by House Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville.
The governor's spokesman, Marty Carpenter, said in a statement Healthy Utah is still the best plan for taxpayers and cited "sharp contrast in terms of cost and coverage between the plans supported by the House committee and the Senate."
Carpenter said the governor "looks forward to working with the Legislature on a solution that best protects the interests of the Utah taxpayer and provides necessary coverage for Utahns in need.”
Shiozawa said all House members should have to "stand up and be counted" on Healthy Utah, and "to shield them from that and to prohibit them from having this opportunity is wrong."
He said the committee's decision may mean there's no action before the session ends March 12 on Medicaid expansion, including for the 60,000 or so Utahns in the so-called coverage gap who don't qualify for federal health care subsidies without it.
Dunnigan said a number of lawmakers would rather not take any action on the Medicaid expansion available under President Barack Obama's signature health care law. He said his plan is "a good step forward" that could be added to later.
"Utah Cares, I think represents a balance," he said. "You could hear by the comments and the votes that there were people all over the place on this issue. So we're trying to walk a line of where I can get something accomplished."
Still, both Shiozawa and Dunnigan said they will continue to work toward a compromise although they disagree over whether the state should start smaller with the House plan or take all the federal funds available under the governor's plan.
Healthy Utah, according to the governor's office, would cost the state $25 million to provide heath care coverage to 126,500 Utahns less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level because of nearly $1 billion in federal funds coming back to the state.
House leaders initially said the bill would not get a hearing because a vote in a closed-door GOP caucus found there wasn't going to be enough support to pass Healthy Utah.
They relented, but introduced their own plan, expected to cost at least $60 million that provides Medicaid expansion to 20,000 Utahns and limited coverage to the rest in the coverage gap that Dunnigan described as a "Yugo, but it still drives."
A long line formed to testify in favor of Healthy Utah at the rare evening hearing that lasted more than two hours; only three people spoke against the governor's plan, including Derek Monson of the Sutherland Institute, who labeled it "risky."
Wendy Hendley, a single mother from Provo who said she has lived in poverty since her divorce, told the committee that Healthy Utah would give her "peace of mind" that she could cope with an accident or illness.
"I am an American citizen working hard to live the American dream," Hendley said.
Members of the committee, however, raised concerns about what they said was uncertainty about the number of Utahns who would seek coverage and the potential impact on the state budget.
They also questioned what would happen at the end of the two-year program.
"In my opinion, passing Healthy Utah for two years with the intent of taking it away is immoral. And passing it for two years with the intent of keeping it is irresponsible," Rep. Jon Stanard, R-St. George, said.
But Rep. Brad King, D-Price, said Healthy Utah covers the most Utahns and any extension of the plan after two years would have to come back to the Legislature for approval.
"That is pretty compelling," King said. "This is probably the easiest vote I’ll take this year."
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