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A hearty round of applause is in order for Gov. Norm Bangerter in response to the compassion and enlightened leadership he displayed this week in helping those Utahns least able to help themselves.

To his credit, Bangerter has pledged that no Utah Medicaid recipient will lose coverage because of a $3.8 million shortfall - $15 million when federal matching funds are included - in the state's portion of the program for the poor who are elderly and disabled. That promise is crucial good news for at least 3,500 of the state's neediest people.Final fiscal year figures released last month showed a modest budget surplus of $14.1 million. During the January-February legislative session, lawmakers decided that the first $10 million of any surplus would go for a new Tax Commission building. That still leaves $3.6 million for a host of other urgent programs.

Bangerter says that at least half the $3.6 million surplus will be earmarked for Medicaid and that no services will be cut for at least 30 days while lawmakers study how to deal with a constantly growing Medicaid caseload mandated by the federal government.

The governor will meet with legislators Sept. 16 on interim committee day to look at alternatives. Certain Medicaid services may become more expensive for some participants, but no options have been closed. In fact, using the entire $3.6 million surplus for Medicaid has not been ruled out.

Bangerter's approach is both compassionate and sensible because Medicaid is a program that is hard to plan for. The state has been generous in expanding its share of the program each year, but somehow the number of participants and the cost always outrun available state funding.

During August, some Medicaid recipients threatened by the funding shortfall occupied the governor's office overnight in a protest. In that instance, the demonstrators clearly went overboard and did their cause a disservice.

But Bangerter is fair as well as firm. The governor's efforts to deal with the Medicaid crisis - a problem shared by most other states - should be seen not as the result of pressure from noisy demonstrators. Rather, it is a careful response to a legitimate need, a response crafted after patiently waiting to see what kind of surplus, if any, would be available.

The growth in Medicaid participants is mostly due to federal mandates that keep casting a wider net, requiring more medical services for more people.

This not only keeps costing the states more, but on a 3-1 matching basis, is an open-ended drain on the federal treasury. Medicaid is the fastest growing part of the entire federal budget.

Many Utah lawmakers would like to draw the line and refuse to comply with the expanding mandates. That would mean cutting services to some classes of people and giving up the matching federal funds. That would not be an easy choice to make.

What is really needed is some kind of systemwide reform that doesn't leave the state at the mercy of an open-ended entitlement that drains uncertain, but ever-larger amounts from the Utah budget.

In the meantime, the governor has done as much as can be expected under the circumstances. He has continued coverage of the needy citizens affected by Medicaid and is looking for answers that don't simply dump everything on the state's taxpayers.

It took strength of character to do as Bangerter did. Another official, with only a few months remaining in his term, might have turned such a difficult problem over to his successor. But Bangerter opted to come to grips with a tough issue under trying circumstances. Bravo, governor!