SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert appeared resigned Thursday to taking what he can get from the Legislature when it comes to Medicaid expansion, saying he doesn't want another battle that results in nothing being done.
"When it comes to politics, you take as much high ground as you can get. You learn how to count the votes. And so you’ve got to get something that will pass," the governor told reporters during his weekly media availability.
Herbert downplayed statements by House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, that there would be no compromise on the limited plan he backs, HB437, introduced this week by House Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville.
"I’m interested in getting something done, not just sitting fighting and getting nothing done," the governor said. "I'm interested in what comes."
Herbert said "everybody puts out their line in the sand, but then negotiations occur. We’ve seen people move and change and modify and improve. I expect that process will continue on and we’ll see what comes out of the Legislature."
Dunnigan's bill would extend traditional Medicaid coverage to 16,000 of the more than 60,000 Utahns who earn below the federal poverty level but can't get any federal health subsidies because the state has not accepted Medicaid expansion.
"It’s certainly better than zero, and it's not what I would have liked to have had," Herbert said. He has failed to win support for more expansive plans covering all of the estimated 110,000 Utahns eligible for Medicaid expansion.
Last session, there was a stalemate between House Republicans and the GOP governor over his Healthy Utah plan that utilized the money available to the state for Medicaid expansion under President Barack Obama's health care law.
An attempt by Herbert and Republican legislative leaders to come up with an acceptable alternative to Healthy Utah failed to muster the support needed for a special session late last year.
Hughes said Thursday Dunnigan's plan was not put together "in a vacuum, without any compromise or collaboration or any input" from stakeholders. He said it will be a tough sell in the House, but it's still the best chance for the issue.
"I think we are reaching out to the most vulnerable in Utah, and it's one that I think we can firmly make a committment that we can provide long term. It's not just doing it so long as federal money says we can," the speaker said.
But Hughes said, as a supporter of the bill, he "can't guarantee you that that bill can even pass in its current form. We have to make sure that's something House members accept and others. There's still work to be done on that front."
He has said repeatedly that if the plan is met with "contempt and protest," it won't advance.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said he doesn’t have a problem with the House taking the lead on Medicaid.
“We’ve kind of been the leader in times past. We welcome the House coming up with something that works for them. We’ll talk about what works for us, and we’re pretty amenable to an incremental approach,” he said.
Earlier this week, a Senate committee endorsed a bill calling for Utah to accept full Medicaid expansion from the federal government, SB77, sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City.
It is not clear if there is support in the Senate to send Davis' bill to the House. Hughes said he wants to see a House committee hearing on Dunnigan's bill quickly. The session ends March 10.
On Thursday, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reiterated its position on Medicaid expansion, first issued in December 2014:
"We recognize that providing adequate health care to individuals and families throughout Utah is a complex and weighty matter. It deserves the best thinking and efforts from both the public and the private sectors.
"While the economic and political realities are being debated, we hope the discussion and decisions taken in this matter will be consistent with the God-given principles regarding care for the poor and the needy that in the end benefit all of his children. We reaffirm the importance for individuals and families to be as self-sufficient as their particular circumstances allow and recognize that the lack of access to health care can impair a person's ability to provide for self and family.
"We commend public officials for their efforts to grapple with these difficult issues and pray for their success in finding solutions that reflect the highest aspirations of society."
Contributing: Dennis Romboy