SALT LAKE CITY — GOP lawmakers made it clear Wednesday they aren't in any hurry to deal with Gov. Gary Herbert's plan to use the Medicaid expansion money available to provide coverage to low-income Utahns under the Affordable Care Act.
The Republican governor has said repeatedly he'd like to have his Healthy Utah plan approved by lawmakers this summer in a special session of the Legislature, once he gets the necessary waivers from the federal government.
But neither the House nor the Senate GOP caucuses that met on the Legislature's first interim day since the 2014 session ended in March were ready to support any Medicaid expansion plan.
"What you're seeing is a desire to do this in a general session," House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said. "We need to make these decisions in the context of the entire budget, which is very difficult to do in one day in a special session."
Lockhart said there is no interest in acting on any plan, not just the governor's proposal to use $258 million in Medicaid expansion money to get private insurance for some 110,000 Utahns earning less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level.
Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, said Senate Republicans took no position during their closed-door caucus discussion, but that could change as discussions continue on the issue.
Herbert and his staff are currently negotiating with President Barack Obama's administration for control of the Medicaid dollars. Thursday, the Legislature's Health Reform Task Force will meet to review options.
"I wouldn't rule out a special session," Okerlund said, calling it less of a preference and more of a practicality to take the time to secure support from the Senate GOP caucus. "Frankly, I'd like to get there in June."
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said many Republican senators are concerned about the long-term costs of expanding coverage under the health care law also known as Obamacare.
Niederhauser, who met with the governor about Medicaid expansion later Wednesday, said for a special session to be acceptable, lawmakers would have to be able to hold hearings during one or two months of interim meetings.
"You have to lay the groundwork," including getting public input, the Senate leader said. "To rush that in what you traditionally see as a special session, I think that is problematic."
Herbert remained optimistic Wednesday, saying in a statement that he is "confident we can find an appropriate process to give the Legislature the time they need to deliberate on the issue.”
The governor said he recognizes "the Legislature has a role to play in this process, and I understand their desire to have proper deliberation" and that this "is a decision of great magnitude that requires thoughtful and appropriate consideration."
Democrats criticized the GOP's inaction.
State Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon said in a statement that the state is losing nearly $800,000 daily in available Medicaid expansion funds by delaying a decision.
Corroon said "140,000 working Utah families are without health insurance, waiting in limbo while our state Legislature dithers, dallies and plays partisan games. Let’s make it a slogan — Utah: We’re doubling down on dumb.”
Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, called the hesitation by the majority caucus to act "simply puzzling" and said the decision “isn’t about politics; it’s about lives."
Like the Senate GOP, House Republicans didn't take a vote in their caucus.
There was little discussion after the House caucus watched a video produced by legislative staff about the options considered last session to cover at least the nearly 60,000 Utahns who don't qualify for health care subsidies without the expansion.
Lawmakers failed to pass any of those options, including one pushed by Lockhart, a possible gubernatorial challenger to Herbert in 2016. She called for giving up the federal money available and instead using $35 million in state tax dollars to offer limited coverage.
During the House caucus, Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, said leadership was "very hesitant" to handle Medicaid expansion in a special session. He said it's now up to the health care task force to evaluate the options.
One of the few who spoke at the caucus meeting, Rep. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi, also used the word "hesitant" to describe his feelings about dealing with Medicaid in a special session.
"That's down the road," he said. "I'm just throwing it out there."
The head of the Health Reform Task Force, Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, told reporters that lawmakers "need to take the time to feel comfortable with the path we end up with. If we can accomplish that in the next few months, great."
Dunnigan said early next year is likely the soonest any program could start.
That leaves some Utahns without any options for assistance until then, but Dunnigan said "if you look at long term, that's a modest time period. It's much more important to get it right. And, most importantly, to get a plan that's sustainable."
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