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Gov. Herbert calls House alternative to expanding Medicaid 'illogical'

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SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert said Wednesday a new House plan to spend state funds rather than accept federal Medicaid expansion money to help cover some of the nearly 60,000 Utahns living below the poverty line is "illogical."

Herbert pointed out that the plan, unveiled by House Republicans a day earlier, not only rejects more than $500 million from Washington, D.C., in favor of using $35 million in state funds, but it also covers only a portion of Utahns left out of both Obamacare and Medicaid.

"It makes it difficult for me to see them paying more money and providing help for fewer people. That seems to be illogical to me," the governor said during the taping of his monthly news conference on KUED Ch. 7.

Utahns are already paying federal taxes to support the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and should get some of that money back by accepting at least a partial expansion of Medicaid, the governor said.

But Herbert again declined to detail his own plan for handling the Medicaid expansion available to the state under the Affordable Care Act, saying he wanted to reach consensus with the Legislature first.

The Republican governor said he was "comfortable" with the negotiations underway with the GOP-dominated House and Senate, though he warned "if we let political ambition and other things get in our way, we may have a distortion out there."

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Herbert said he's "prepared to make sure we get the right outcome" before the session ends March 13. The governor said he does not believe his efforts are being undermined by House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, who sought the House plan.

Lockhart, seen as a possible challenger to Herbert in 2016, said she's trying to ensure Utah maintains control over the health care coverage provided to what she said would be the neediest residents.

"I don’t know what’s illogical or doesn’t make sense about providing a state-based solution for those in need before we get involved in an unsustainable partnership with the federal government," the speaker said.

She acknowledged that some of the money for the programs the House plan would utilize for the medically frail and parents with children comes from Medicaid funds. But, Lockhart said, "that doesn't require a new decision on our part."

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said Senate Republicans are sorting through a lot of options on Medicaid to find the best approach for Utah. He described them as "mixed" on whether the state should accept federal money.

"Knowing that we are going to be sending out hundreds of millions of dollars in new taxes under the ACA and not get any of that back is a compelling argument," Niederhauser said. "It's got lots of legislators questioning whether we should do nothing. That's definitely a big part of this discussion."

The governor said Utah has a "moral obligation" to assist at least those Utahns earning less than $11,500 annually for a single person and $22,550 for a family of four, the federal poverty level.

The governor said Utah has a "moral obligation" to assist at least those Utahns earning less than $11,500 annually for a single person and $22,550 for a family of four, the federal poverty level.

Herbert said he should be ready to announce his position in the next week to 10 days. Asked if he wants to accept the federal Medicaid expansion up to the poverty level, he said, "that's because you're so good at reading between the lines."

After the taping, the governor said there is "certainly an argument" to accept the full expansion available, covering Utahns who earn up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.

"It's a matter of what is the political will, what will the market bear, in trying to come up with a solution to the problem that we can all feel good about," he said. "That's what you call building consensus, and that's what I'm going to do."

Herbert said he has asked a former staffer, Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, to sponsor a resolution declaring that if a state drops out of a federal program, that state no longer needs to contribute toward it.

The resolution, HCR5, refers to the $900 million legislative researchers say Utah taxpayers contribute on average annually toward the Affordable Care Act while receiving about $800 million back in insurance subsidies, Medicaid and other funds.

The resolution only expresses the position of Utah on the issue.

Several Democratic lawmakers held a news conference Wednesday to criticize the House plan.

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, who is also the chairman of the state Democratic Party, called the actions of House leadership irresponsible and said Democrats support accepting the full Medicaid expansion available.

Senate Minority Caucus Manager Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake City, said she's not sure what backers of the plan really want.

"It’s not about the policy anymore. It’s something else," Robles said. "It is politics and maybe people running for office and maybe someone not happy with someone else. This is not kindergarten."

Contributing: Dennis Romboy

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