- Associated Press - Friday, February 3, 2017

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Utah’s Health Department said Friday that the state will expand Medicaid to cover more low-income parents, covering only a small number of the state’s poorest people that officials have considered covering in the program over the past few years under President Barack Obama’s health law.

The plan announced by Utah’s Department of Health would cover parents earning up to 60 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $14,760 annually for a family of four. Currently the state only covers parents earning up to 45 percent of the federal poverty level, about $11,070 a year for a four-member family.

The U.S. government, which must approve the change, has already indicated to state officials it will approve the plan after it is submitted, Health Department spokesman Tom Hudachko said. The plan is expected to cost Utah $5 million to $7 million annually, with Washington contributing $12 million to $16 million more for the rest.

The state estimates the expansion will provide insurance for an additional 3,000 to 5,000 adults, starting around July 1, Hudachko said. They were one portion of the uninsured group of up to 15,000 of the state’s very poorest whom Utah’s GOP Legislature voted last year to cover in Medicaid.

In a statement Friday, Gov. Gary Herbert called it “modest, but important” help for some of the most vulnerable.

“It’s just a mini-expansion of that mini-expansion, basically,” said Micah Vorwaller, a policy analyst with the Utah Health Policy Project, a nonprofit advocacy group promoting affordable health care. Vorwaller said it’s great that more people will get insurance, but “in no way is this the end of the road or a huge victory.”

After several years of debate, Utah’s Legislature opted against expanding Medicaid as offered under Obama’s law. Under the law, if states covered those earning up to 138 percent of the poverty level - about $34,000 annually for a family of four - the U.S. government would pick up at least 90 percent of the cost.

But Utah legislators citied concerns that the costs would break the state’s budget, especially if more people than expected signed up - something other states have had to address.

Instead, lawmakers last year decided to cover only the poorest of the poor - the chronically homeless earning less than $600 a year and some people on probation, parole or court-ordered treatment who have mental health or substance abuse problems.

That plan, from Rep. Jim Dunnigan, would also have included the parents covered in Friday’s announcement.

Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, said that officials in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said they likely will approve the portion covering the parents, because it is similar to what Utah already does for even poorer parents. The other proposed changes would take longer to review, and federal officials have not yet made a decision.

Friday’s mini-expansion comes amid uncertainty in Congress over if and how President Donald Trump’s administration and the Republican leaders reshape Medicaid.

Dunnigan acknowledged that there are many unknowns. But he said covering more low-income parents in Utah is “a modest improvement” toward covering the uninsured poor, and for the parents involved “it will certainly improve their lives.”


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

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