- 2015 Session
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Healthy Utah Risk
By Allen Christensen
Utah State Senator
Healthy Utah is a fiscal risk that will hurt more than it helps
A showdown is coming on Utah’s Capitol Hill. Expansion of Medicaid is looming as the battle of the session and the outcome will impact tens of thousands of Utah citizens. Team one has Gov. Herbert as the captain, backed by some very influential figures, espousing “Healthy Utah.” Team two has the Health Reform Task Force and many members of the Utah Legislature proposing the more affordable option dubbed “Vulnerable Utah.” There is also a third team advocating for no expansion at all.
Herbert’s team, many of whom know very little of the issue but owe allegiance to the governor, lend their voices and names to the battle. Others of his team seem mesmerized by all those federal dollars offered as a bribe while ignoring the consequences of expanding Obamacare here in Utah.
Healthy Utah would offer health insurance to many low income Utah citizens. Current estimates are that 140,000 would be covered, costing Utah taxpayers $80 million each year, while trusting the federal government’s promise to pay the rest. However, other states are seeing their actual costs and numbers are far exceeding expectations. Those who would receive this new entitlement under Healthy Utah are predominately the healthy, working-age, childless adults. Other more vulnerable groups such as pregnant women, the blind, the disabled, the elderly, and children already have Medicaid coverage.
Team two, the Health Reform Task Force, having studied expansion for years, sees the offered federal dollars as an entitlement trap which, though proposed as a limited experiment, once in place will be impossible to end. The Vulnerable Utah plan proposes to offer Medicaid to only the most medically needy (such as those with severe mental illness) and who are living below the poverty level. The objective being to help the most critical of this poverty group and still have money left to fund others who also have critical needs. The Vulnerable Utah plan is estimated to cost the state $27 million annually, which is $50 million less than the governor’s proposal.
The Legislature receives many requests for funding every year. Those who have attended these appropriations meetings have heard the heart-wrenching pleas of people and groups in desperate need. Many of these requests are preventative which, if funded now, would save Utah millions of future dollars, not to mention the savings in terms of human suffering and pain. This year the Social Services Committee has assigned a funding priority to 80 requests which, if all were funded, would require more than $100 million state dollars.
The cold, hard decision the legislators face is, “Where will our limited state dollars be spent?” If the Healthy Utah proposal prevails, the governor plans on sweeping every available dollar from every corner of the budget. It won’t be taken from education, or transportation, or infrastructure so the only place left is to deny all social services requests. Should we really ignore the pleas of those who are truly needy in Utah in favor of the more healthy group included in full Medicaid expansion (Healthy Utah)? Or should we expand on a smaller scale (Vulnerable Utah) and still be able to fund some of the most needy priority requests?
The lines are drawn. The showdown is imminent. Fiscal responsibility demands making tough sustainable choices and the courage to support those choices.