- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 7, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Utah will still not be allowed to require Medicaid recipients to work, even though the president has offered Utah Gov. Gary Herbert more flexibility on the issue, federal officials said Wednesday.

U.S. Health and Human Services Department spokesman Ben Wakana said “encouraging work is a legitimate state objective” and the agency looks forward to continuing negotiations with Herbert over Medicaid expansion.

“However, work initiatives are not the purpose of the Medicaid program and cannot be a condition of Medicaid eligibility,” Wakana said.

Herbert originally sought a work requirement as part of his alternative to expanding the state-federal health care program. Instead, he reached a deal with federal officials late last year that would allow some Medicaid recipients to be enrolled in job-search and training programs, but they’d be able to opt-out.

Following a meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C., Herbert told reporters in a teleconference Tuesday that the president pledged to revisit the issue with U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell.

“He was very positive about that concept, and as we had discussion back and forth, his response was, ‘Let me call Secretary Sylvia Burwell and see if we can’t revisit this discussion and get closer to where you want to be,’” Herbert said.

Herbert’s office didn’t know if the governor would continue negotiations with federal health officials before returning to Utah on Thursday.

It’s unclear how much more flexibility the Obama administration would allow.

As individual states have negotiated with federal officials over the past year or so, “everyone’s been kind of redefining what’s possible,” said Matt Salo, executive director of the National Association of Medicaid Directors.

“What the administration is saying yes to now is not something they would have said yes to six months ago, and it’s hard to know what they’ll say yes to six months from now,” he said.

Because of a flaw in the federal health care law, anywhere from 60,000 to 95,000 Utah residents are currently ineligible for Medicaid or federal help paying for private insurance through the online health marketplace. Under the health care law, the federal government has offered to pick up most of the costs if states expand eligibility in the program.

Herbert has instead proposed using federal money to enroll at least 95,000 low-income Utah residents in private health insurance. The program would be available to those earning up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level, which is about $15,500 annually for individuals and $32,000 for a family of four.

The Republican governor needs Utah’s Republican-controlled Legislature to approve the plan before any deal is official. He’s said he hopes to get the lawmakers to sign on during their upcoming legislative session.

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Follow Michelle L. Price at https://twitter.com/michellelprice

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