- Associated Press - Friday, July 17, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and Republican legislative leaders announced Friday afternoon that they’ve agreed on the broad outlines of a deal to expand Medicaid in the state, but they released few details about the plan or sticking points in their negotiations.

After months of closed-door discussions, Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser and Gov. Gary Herbert said in a statement that their plan would expand eligibility for Medicaid to those earning up to 138 percent of the poverty level.

That would cover about 126,000 people and allow Utah to take advantage of the federal government’s offer to pay most of the cost, a provision of President Barack Obama’s health care law.

Health care providers such as hospitals that stand to benefit from more Medicaid-covered patients would help Utah pay the remainder of the cost.

“There is still work to be done, but I believe we now have a framework in place that will provide care for Utahns most in need while being responsible with limited taxpayer funds,” Herbert said in the statement.

The statement did not offer further information about the plan.

Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, applauded the group for reaching consensus and covering those up to 138 percent, but he said he needs to see the details before he can weigh in on the plan. “I think it’s a breakthrough, but it still looks there’s an awful lot of weakness in the details,” Davis said.

RyLee Curtis, a Medicaid policy analyst with the Utah Health Policy Project, said that if Utah expands Medicaid, hospitals will benefit from having fewer uninsured people that leave them with unpaid bills. She said hospitals should still save money even if they pay some of the costs of expansion. At least three other states, including Colorado and Arizona, use similar models, Curtis said.

For more than two years, Utah officials have been debating whether to expand eligibility for Medicaid to help the state’s poor and uninsured.

Through a gap in President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, an estimated 60,000 Utah residents living below the poverty line are ineligible for federal help paying for insurance.

Herbert arranged a tentative plan last year with the federal government that would allow Utah to use a chunk of federal money to enroll more of the poor in private health plans. But conservative lawmakers in Utah’s House of Representatives rejected that idea earlier this year, saying that federal money may not be there down the road and Utah’s costs could balloon.

After failing to reach a deal during this year’s legislative session, Herbert and Republican lawmakers pledged to find an agreement by July 31. If they reach a deal, Herbert plans to call a special session where lawmakers would consider the plan.

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