Mythical middle men of Medicaid debate emerge

Posted at 6:09 PM, Feb 28, 2014
and last updated 2014-02-28 20:09:43-05

SALT LAKE CITY -- A question kept emerging during our coverage of the Medicaid expansion debate as it became clear Gov. Gary Herbert and State House Speaker Rebecca Lockhart would have radically different proposals:

Will any Republican Representatives stand against their powerful speaker?

It's not a simple question of personality: which leader do you support? Issues and emotion, principles and politics swirl in an uncomfortable mix for Utah conservatives. Many in the House share the Speaker's strong distrust of the Obama administration and the Affordable Care Act, AKA Obamacare. Many of them think the government is on the verge of insolvency and Obamacare money is a false promise.

Because of that, Speaker Lockhart said Utah shouldn't take any money from the program. Instead, she proposes a more modest program using $35 million from the state to help those most in need.

Governor Herbert agrees that the federal government spends too much and promises too much, but he said the Obamacare dollars are taxes Utahns paid and Utahns might as well take the money and benefit. He wants to create a program called "Healthy Utah" that would use the $258 million offered federal dollars to pay for private insurance for low-income Utahns. Those making a little more money would pay premiums capped at 2 percent of their income and all recipients would have co-pays.

State Representative Eric Hutchings is with Lockhart on his distrust of the federal government. The Republican from Kearns said he doesn't want to tell poor Utahns they are covered, only to have to say "sorry" later.

But Hutchings also said personal experience has taught him that something has to change. His parents spent their life savings on treatments when his mother got bone marrow cancer, and only then did they qualify for Medicaid. By the time she died, his father had no money left for retirement.

"Here you are in your mid sixties, just at the point where you're trying to figure things out, and all the sudden everything is gone," Hutchings said. "It took everything from them. And there are families all over the state of Utah that are going through that right now."

So Hutchings said he'll work to find a middle ground and he's willing to consider accepting at least a portion of the Obamacare money.

"We will solve this. We have to solve this," Hutchings said.

Hutchings will have an ally in the middle in Robert Spendlove, another Republican from Sandy. Spendlove worked for the governor for a time and is an economist. He makes the case that the state has good conservative reasons to find a way to finance health care for the poor.

"[Low income Utahns] coverage is through the emergency room," Spendlove said. "They're going to the emergency room for minor things. They're going there for some major things, but they're going there for coughs and colds and fevers, and the average cost for them going to the emergency room is $1,400 a visit."

Spendlove said there is a way to deal with Speaker Lockhart's worry about federal strings.

"I think that's the place were we can really push, making it absolutely contingent on the federal government keeping the promises they've made to the state of Utah," he said.