Designed to Fail: Utah Republicans’ Backdoor Repeal of Voter-Approved Medicaid Expansion

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Analysis Health Systems

Designed to Fail: Utah Republicans’ Backdoor Repeal of Voter-Approved Medicaid Expansion

Adam Searing

Utah lawmakers' repeal of Medicaid expansion is not an attempt to address the state's health-care problem with a good-faith solution.

In November 2018, a majority of voters in Utah passed a Medicaid expansion ballot initiative providing Medicaid coverage to low-income people. The state’s GOP-held legislature, unhappy with the ballot results, this month overturned the robust expansion. 

Voters in November also approved a minuscule (0.15 percent) sales tax to pay for this new health insurance coverage for low-income people—in total 150,000 Utah residents. Coverage was mandated to begin April 1, 2019. A family of three with an annual income of less than $29,435 would be eligible for the health-care program, for example.

The passage of the ballot initiative was a strong expression of the will of Utah voters in the face of legislative inaction. Over the years, Utah legislators and governor have battled a grassroots movement for more affordable health coverage through Medicaid expansion with a clever strategy: oversell limited legislation that only expands Medicaid to just a few of the thousands needing affordable coverage and hope that public attention moves on.

Exhibit one is the Republican-controlled Utah state legislature’s 2016 “targeted Medicaid program” that was trumpeted as expanding coverage to the very lowest income “4,000 to 6,000 Utah adults” (those below 5 percent of the poverty line) but only 500 adults actually enrolled by the start of 2018. This limited plan only passed after years of Medicaid study committees, task force proposals, and administration plans that went nowhere.  

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Another plan developed by Gov. Gary Herbert (R) came with a hefty tax on a long list of health-care providers. This “poison pill” provision, to no one’s surprise, generated enormous opposition to the proposal, limiting further action and yet again delaying addressing the problem.

However, these limited moves on Medicaid, rather than ending discussion, fed public pressure to actually make health coverage more widely available. So Utah legislators again revisited the health-care question in 2018, passing a partial expansion bill requiring a waiver from the federal government and containing barriers that would prevent people from gaining coverage, including spending caps and complex reporting requirements. Even the wildly optimistic state estimates said this plan would reach less than half of those eligible for a full Medicaid expansion.

Utah officials persisted in pursuing a partial expansion at that time, even though the Trump administration had rejected similar requests from Arkansas and Massachusetts.

This history of legislative failure by design makes the repeal last week of the voter-passed Medicaid expansion by the Utah Legislature and Herbert more predictable. Utah lawmakers have spent years trying to look like they were responding to voters demanding new affordable health coverage options for low-income people, but with strict barriers and limits that made the reality of any legislative changes much less than advertised. And that’s exactly what happened with the latest bill that repeals the Medicaid expansion and purports to replace it with what Herbert claims is “quality health coverage for the roughly 150,000 Utahns potential enrollees.”

Utah’s repeal bill replaces the Medicaid coverage with three federal waiver proposals that will initially cost more and cover fewer people. Two of these waiver proposals are controversial partial expansions that will leave large coverage gaps. The first is a partial expansion without the extra federal funding available to the voter-approved expansion, so it would cost more and cover fewer people. The second is a partial expansion with the extra federal money—something that has never been approved, and if approved, would be challenged in the courts for violating Medicaid law.

Only if Utah’s first two waiver requests for a partial expansion are denied would the state pursue a third option—yet another expansion waiver up to the same income level voters approved but with coverage starting in 2020.

Under all three options, Utah lawmakers want to impose barriers to coverage like work reporting requirements and locking people out for failure to comply with undefined “program requirements.” These barriers make a mockery of the expansion.

To top it off, Utah Republicans want to limit or freeze enrollment in Medicaid—something no other state has been allowed to do. State officials have tried for years for such limited partial expansions and are hopeful that they will finally get approval from the Trump administration, which is reportedly considering the issue.

Utah GOP lawmakers have come up with new poison pill provisions too, like a potential 10 percent cut to all other health and social service programs in the state to fund expansion to the level voters approved in the ballot initiative.

It has been widely reported that if federal waivers aren’t approved, the bill reverts to the ballot initiative. A close read suggests this isn’t correct. The relevant provision purporting to allow the voter-approved expansion to go into effect if federal waivers are rejected is actually just a line that allows the state to submit yet another waiver—with all the restrictions, “flexibilities and cost controls” state legislators would like to add—none of which were a part of voter-approved expansion.

Utah politicians are well practiced at putting forward limited programs that do little to address the problem voter-approved Medicaid expansion would solve. I hope I’m wrong and 150,000 Utahns really do get what the governor calls “quality health coverage.” However, the repeal effort should be seen for what it is—not an attempt to address the same problem with a good-faith solution, but more obfuscation and delays through limited enrollments and taxing barriers to coverage—and a clear reversal of the will of the voters.