Senate Republicans talk Medicaid expansion but make no decisions

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SALT LAKE CITY — Senate Republicans expressed frustration Tuesday after spending 90 minutes in a closed-door caucus talking about the state's options for Medicaid expansion without reaching any decision.

"We're not finished," Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, told reporters.

The caucus plans to tackle the issue again Thursday because there are still unanswered questions, he said.

"It's a frustrating issue to grapple with because there isn't anything definite," Niederhauser said.

Asked if he thought the Legislature would reach an agreement this session, he said, "Possibly."

House Republicans delayed discussions on Medicaid expansion until next week. House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said some of their caucus meetings on the issue will likely be closed.

Hughes said lawmakers will have a more open debate if the public and press are not watching.

"We want to get this right," the speaker said. "I'm afraid if it's a public dialogue, some questions might not be answered and the conclusions we would make would impact the state potentially in a negative way."

He said it is now up to the Senate whether House and Senate Republicans hold a rare joint caucus. Niederhauser said senators did not talk Tuesday about a joint caucus because they want to finish their own Medicaid discussion first.

Hughes, who first proposed the meeting last week, said again Tuesday that he believes a joint caucus should be closed to the public and press.

Deciding what to do about the Medicaid expansion available to assist low-income Utahns in obtaining health care under the Affordable Care Act puts lawmakers in "an extreme circumstance," he said.

Lawmakers are being pushed by GOP Gov. Gary Herbert to accept his Healthy Utah alternative to Medicaid expansion. Over the past year, the governor has been negotiating to win approval for the plan from the Obama administration.

Healthy Utah would help provide private insurance coverage for Utahns earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, including those who otherwise would not qualify for health care subsidies without some form of Medicaid expansion.

Niederhauser said he wants to cover the insurance coverage gap and the governor’s Healthy Utah is the only plan that does that. But, he said, he’s open to other ideas as long as the gap is covered.

Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Logan, said his plan is being called “frail” Utah because it covers only the medically frail up to 100 percent of the federal poverty level.

“I have been called a significant number of names for my cold-heartedness,” he said. “Everything I have to say about Healthy Utah is negative, so I’ll leave that to somebody else.”

Christensen said many of his conservative colleagues don’t want to do anything that would put more people under government control for health care. Doing nothing, he said, “that’s the third plan.”

Christensen said half the states have accepted Medicaid expansion, while half have not.

"I would like Utah to be another one of those who turns that expansion down," he said. Email: Twitter: DNewsPolitics

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