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Gov. Herbert encouraged by Obama pledge to work with states on Medicaid expansion

Published: Saturday, July 4 2015 10:53 p.m. MDT

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert attends a news conference during the National Governor's Association Winter Meeting in Washington, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014. Gov. Herbert said Monday he was encouraged after hearing President Barack Obama pledge to work with states on Medicaid expansion during a meeting with the nation's governors in the White House. (Cliff Owen, Associated Press) Utah Gov. Gary Herbert attends a news conference during the National Governor's Association Winter Meeting in Washington, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014. Gov. Herbert said Monday he was encouraged after hearing President Barack Obama pledge to work with states on Medicaid expansion during a meeting with the nation's governors in the White House. (Cliff Owen, Associated Press)

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert said Monday he was encouraged after hearing President Barack Obama pledge to work with states on Medicaid expansion during a meeting with the nation's governors in the White House.

But Herbert said the states shouldn't be treated like "junior partners" in implementing the expansion available under the president's Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

"None of us like just being dictated to by Washington, D.C.," the governor said in a telephone interview on his way to the airport. "So I'm encouraged by the rhetoric. Let's hope the actions prove to be commensurate with what the tone and talk was today."

Utah is one of the few states that has yet to make a decision on whether to accept Medicaid expansion to help provide health care to poor and low-income residents, including those who don't qualify for subsidies under Obamacare.

The president promised his administration would work with governors to tailor Medicaid expansion programs in his remarks to members of the National Governors Association earlier Monday, according to a transcript released by the White House.

"States that don’t expand Medicaid are going to be leaving up to 5.4 million Americans uninsured. And that doesn’t have to happen. Work with us to get this done. We can provide a lot of flexibility," Obama said.

The president said governors including Mike Beebe of Arkansas, a Democrat, "have done some terrific work designing programs that are right for their states but also provide access to care for people who need it."

Also mentioned — but not by name — were Republican governors who have accepted the expansion.

"I won't name them in front of the press because I don't want to get you all in trouble," Obama said.

Herbert has faced stiff opposition from his fellow Republicans to accepting any federal money for the program, even for the nearly 60,000 Utahns earning less than 100 percent of the federal poverty level who don't qualify for subsidies and won't be covered without an expansion of Medicaid.

Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, called Herbert an "inaction figure" at the beginning of the 2014 Legislature and said taking the federal dollars was a "trap" for the state.

Lockhart has since had a state-funded alternative put together for only the neediest Utahns in the coverage gap, expected to cost as much as $35 million. There is more than $500 million in federal money available for the expansion.

The speaker said Monday her message to the governor was that "the federal government talks a good talk" but failed to deliver in the past on issuing waivers sought by the state for Medicaid.

Herbert said he had an opportunity to lobby U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and some of her staff while in Washington, D.C., about the waivers he'd want for Medicaid expansion.

The governor declined to say what he's asking for from the federal government. He has said only that he has decided "doing nothing" is not an option when it comes to Medicaid expansion.

There has been talk that the state may seek a waiver to increase the federal government's share of the expansion costs in upcoming years from 70 percent to 90 percent for those Utahns in the coverage gap.

"I don't want to divulge that right now," the governor said of his proposal. Herbert said he is working with lawmakers to find the "sweet spot" for accepting federal dollars to take care of the Utahns in the gap.

Herbert, who will become vice chairman of the governors association this summer and its president next year, said he "chuckled" at being named the nation's most popular governor by the Washington Post.

"It's nice," the governor said of the ranking headlined, "The most popular governor in the country? You probably haven't heard of him." Herbert said his high favorability rating is a result of Utah doing well compared with the rest of the country.

"When things are going well, the governor is well-liked," he said. "I hope to keep that."

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