SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert said Tuesday he's asked the federal government to handle the newly mandated health insurance exchange for individual consumers while allowing the state to continue to run a similar program for small businesses.
Herbert's announcement came after he spent nearly an hour meeting in Washington, D.C., with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius about what Utah needed to do to comply with the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.
The governor told reporters in a conference call that the response he received from the secretary was that the administration "wants to find a way to get to yes." He said he expects another meeting with Sebelius on the issue within the next 10 days.
Herbert said the decision to stop negotiations over the state providing the individual health insurance exchange was made in conjunction with lawmakers and representatives of the insurance industry.
"We're united on this effort," he said. "We believe this is the way the state of Utah should go forward."
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, had been adamantly against the state taking on any new responsibilities as a result of President Barack Obama's health care reform law. Lockhart reiterated her opposition in her opening address to the House last week.
"I've had a very strong position, and I've made that known," Lockhart said Tuesday. "The people of Utah did not want this law. … It's a federal law. They should take responsibility for it, and they should implement it."
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said he was disappointed a deal couldn't be reached that would have allowed the state to run the individual exchange, a longtime goal of he and others who developed Utah's Avenue H exchange for small businesses.
"Maybe the speaker can say, 'I told you so. There is no hope here,'" Niederhauser said. "To see us trumped by Washington, it's sad. It really is. I can't express how sad I am about that. It's almost like we're flushing all our effort down the toilet."
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said the governor may be giving in to a combination of political pressure and the reality of what the state would have to deliver to comply with the new law.
"There are a number of Republican leaders who have made the judgment that the best thing to do here politically is simply oppose it," Burbank said. "He's thinking that is an easier path."
Ally Isom, the governor's deputy chief of staff, issued a statement about the governor's decision.
"All along the governor has been requesting answers to questions. As we received more information, we've been able to evaluate more of what the Affordable Care Act and HHS require, and determine what is best for the people of Utah," Isom said.
She said the position the governor presented Tuesday "is based upon a thorough evaluation and in collaboration with legislative leadership."
Herbert is expected to elaborate more Wednesday in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., on market-based reform in health care.
The governor had indicated in correspondence with Sebelius in December that he saw providing comparison shopping for individuals looking for health insurance as a state function under the new law.
Last month, the administration gave Utah and three other GOP-led states the go-ahead to run their own exchanges on the condition they comply with all federal regulations, including providing insurance options for individuals.
But Tuesday, Herbert said Utah doesn't want to enforce the individual mandate required by the law or administer Medicaid through the state exchange.
"That will be the federal government's responsibility," the governor said.
He called his proposal a "win-win," saying "it allows Utah to stay true to its principles and objectives."
Utah, the governor said, "has been an example of good health care for a long time. We have a lot to lose."
A spokesman for the Utah Health Policy Project, a patient advocacy group, said even with the governor's decision, the issue of how the new law will be implemented in Utah is far from settled.
"We cease to be surprised about how many twists and turns there have been in this saga," group spokesman Jason Stevenson said. "This is the latest turn, but we don't think it will be the last."
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