- Associated Press - Monday, October 12, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - For more than three years, state elected officials have debated if and how they’ll insure thousands of Utah’s poor by expanding Medicaid, but top officials aren’t sure if that effort will survive a closed-door vote Tuesday by conservatives in Utah’s House of Representatives.

If there isn’t enough support, legislative leaders and Herbert’s office won’t predict if they’ll still consider the issue in a special session or if they’ll walk away from the issue entirely.

Supporters of Medicaid expansion argue that even if Utah walks away, bypassing millions in federal money, the state will still need to grapple with thousands of its poor going without health care.

“How many people will suffer in the meantime? How much money will we lose in the meantime? That’s the question,” House Democratic leader Brian King of Salt Lake City said.

The GOP-dominated House rejected earlier plans to expand the program by accepting a chunk of federal money offered under President Barack Obama’s health care law, citing concerns that Utah cannot afford it.

The latest plan calls on doctors, hospitals and other medical providers to help pay most of the state’s costs, with the hope it appeases conservatives worried about busting Utah’s budget.

House Speaker Greg Hughes said he doesn’t want to see a special session called unless there’s backing from 38 House Republicans - enough to carry the bill through his GOP-dominated chamber without relying on the votes of 12 Democrats.

That would show there’s clear Republican support lined up for the plan and it won’t squeak by with the minority party having “disproportionate influence” on the issue, Hughes said.

Republican Gov. Gary Herbert can still call lawmakers into a special session anyway, which could create a rift with his own party.

Herbert has not decided yet if he’ll do that, spokesman Jon Cox said, saying he wants to let the legislative process move forward without trying to dictate or control it.

Hughes said that while it would be a bad political move for the governor to call unwilling House Republicans into a special session, he has the right to do so. If the governor does call a session, Hughes said he won’t block the proposal from coming to a vote on the House floor.

Hughes declined to predict how the House GOP will vote on the plan and whether they’d tweak it, revert to a pared-down alternative that covers fewer people, or walk away entirely.

“What I don’t think we can do is start from ground zero,” Hughes said. “We’re going to give it our best shot.”

Democrats other supporters of Medicaid expansion are criticizing the process, saying it shouldn’t be held up by backroom-GOP negotiations.

“I think that is remarkable in its offensiveness to the democratic process,” King said.

King said he doesn’t know if there are enough Democrats and Republicans combined to pass the bill, but it should be debated openly.

Open talks allow Democrats, members of the public and experts to advocate for the plan and respond to any hang-ups lawmakers have about it, he said. Until then, King said, “We’re shooting in the dark here.”


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