- Associated Press - Thursday, December 3, 2015

WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah (AP) - Gov. Gary Herbert will not propose another Medicaid plan and instead will wait to see what, if anything, legislators come up with, his office said Thursday.

Lawmakers earlier this year rejected two plans backed by the Republican governor. They intend to tackle the issue again in 2016 after debating it for more than three years and failing to agree.

But Herbert’s chief of staff Justin Harding said it’s possible Utah may wait until 2017, to see if a Republican wins the White House and offers the state more flexibility about who it will cover and how.

Any plan the Legislature and governor approve must also pass muster with federal health officials.

There is no deadline to approve an expanded Medicaid plan. But without one, Utah is missing out on federal money, and thousands of its residents remain unable to afford insurance.

Harding said the governor’s office and legislative leaders still hope to find a plan they can all agree on next year. But if lawmakers “choose to wait until 2017, I think we would support that as well,” he said.

Harding spoke on the governor’s behalf at a health care conference in West Valley City hosted by the Utah Health Policy Project, a nonprofit that advocates affordable health care. Herbert had other commitments and couldn’t attend, he said.

The governor sent along a brief videotaped message where he said Utah still needs to find a way to help its most vulnerable citizens access affordable health care.

Under President Barack Obama’s 2010 health care law, the federal government has offered to pay most of the cost if states allow more low-income people to be eligible for insurance through Medicaid.

The state’s GOP-controlled Legislature has been divided on the issue. The Senate embraced Herbert’s plan, but the House rejected it, citing concerns that federal money might not be there in the future.

“Can we bet on that?” House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said Thursday.

Hughes pointed to Arches Mutual Insurance Co., a Utah cooperative health insurer that shut down in October after learning it would get only a fraction of the federal money it was counting on.

He said lawmakers need to ensure the state can afford Medicaid and noted other states that grew the program saw far more people signing up than officials budgeted for.

Herbert’s plan, dubbed Healthy Utah, would have used a chunk of federal money to enroll thousands of Utah’s poor in private health plans instead of the government Medicaid plan.

Lawmakers rejected Healthy Utah this spring, and Herbert, Hughes and four other Utah Republican leaders met behind closed doors this summer and fall to hammer out an alternative.

House Republicans rejected that plan in October, citing concerns about how Utah would pay its $55 million share of the program and keep costs from spiraling out of control. The federal government would chip in about $450 million.

Democrats have criticized the Republican backroom dealings and advocated for Utah to expand the program as designed under the federal health care law.

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