SALT LAKE CITY — Just days after House Republicans heard a woman who had lobbied them for Medicaid expansion died after not getting the care she needed, state leaders have announced a "conceptual framework" on a new program.
"You never know what one thing is going to change somebody's mind," an emotional Rep. Ray Ward, who met with the woman just before her death, said after hearing the news released late Friday by Gov. Gary Herbert and legislative leaders.
Ward, R-Bountiful, handed a note to House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, at last Wednesday's House Republican caucus meeting from Carol Frisby and informed him she had died after a battle with colon cancer.
Frisby, who had been unable to afford the colonoscopy screening that may have detected her illness in time to treat it, had met privately with the speaker and appeared before the caucus to talk about the need for Medicaid expansion.
Ward, a doctor, is one of the few House Republicans who supported the governor's Healthy Utah alternative to the Medicaid expansion available under President Barack Obama's health care law. Healthy Utah failed in the 2015 Legislature.
The governor's response was to assemble the so-called Gang of Six and charge them with coming up with an proposal by July 31. House Republicans were told a their meeting Wednesday that deadline would not be met.
But that changed after the group met later Wednesday. Their meeting was not announced and was closed to the press and the public, as have been all of their discussions.
They came to at least a conceptual agreement on two key issues: covering all of the Utahns eligible for Medicaid expansion and taxing hospitals and others in the medical community to pay for the state's share of the federal program's cost.
That would mean a new plan for spending hundreds of millions of dollars available to the state would provide health care to about 100,000 Utahns earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.
House Republicans had passed their own plan last session that would have provided only limited coverage to the 60,000 Utahns below the federal poverty level, those in what's called the coverage gap because they don't qualify for any federal subsidies.
A progress report Thursday from one of the group's members, Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights, made at the Legislature's Health Reform Task Force did not mention an agreement, just that their efforts had been "very productive."
The news release late Friday afternoon caught some off guard.
House Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, was initially not aware an agreement had been announced. Later, he said the news release was not related to the negative media coverage from Wednesday's caucus meeting.
"We've been getting bad press for a long time, so really that's not much different," Dunnigan said. "For me, it's not political. I was able to get to a point where I could envision a program that could work."
The majority leader said the group has now "certainly met our July 31 deadline."
But Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said that deadline hasn't been met because it will take at least through August to finalize their version of Medicaid expansion.
"I want to emphasize that we've made substantial progress. We have a foundation now. Our future meetings will be now kind of putting the muscle on the skeleton," Niederhauser said. "I wouldn't say it's a lot of work. I think we're on the tail end."
The Senate president said it's possible a proposal could be ready for a vote by lawmakers as soon as September. Herbert has said he will call a special session of the Legislature once it's done.
The governor said in a statement that "there is still work to be done, but I believe we now have a framework in place that will provide care for Utahns most in need while being responsible with limited taxpayer funds."
The news release stated the group will meet with unnamed stakeholders and policymakers in the coming weeks, and once a formal draft is produced, public hearings through legislative committees will be held.
The Obama administration will also have to sign off on any plan.
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said it's hard to know what to make of Friday's surprise announcement.
"Late Friday is typically the time when you release political news you really don't want anyone to be thinking about. So it's a little surprising an announcement of this magnitude, if it really is a major breakthrough, would be made on a Friday," he said.
While Karpowitz said he didn't "want to assign too much political motive" to the announcement coming after Frisby's death, he said "that sort of tragic and dramatic event could certainly be the catalyst for further work."
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