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'Sleepover' points up Medicaid needs

Even with a sleeping bag and a pillow, the marble floors of the state Capitol aren't very cozy.

But that's nothing compared with what disabled Utahns live with every day, said a group of 25 citizen activists who stayed the night Monday in their version of the "Hotel Utah" to drive home the point to lawmakers that more Medicaid services need to be reinstated.

A number of conversations with Utah Highway Patrol troopers and even an attempt by Attorney General Mark Shurtleff to send the group packing were not enough.

Kay Fox of the Salt Lake Action Program said the decision to stay the night was made at 4 p.m. after lawmakers finalized the budget proposal.

Activists said they are aggravated that $2 million has been earmarked to restore the runway at the Dugway Proving Grounds.

"That is the exact amount of money we need to restore the programs that improve people's lives and save lives," Fox said.

Fox said she is grateful for the Legislature's help so far. About $1.9 million has been restored to Medicaid to offset a cut that was scheduled to take effect this week. Another $4.6 million to eliminate an old income eligibility requirement in the joint state and federal medical insurance plan for the poor has also been approved.

But Fox and her friends also want restoration to cover earlier cuts in dental care, eye care, physical therapy and podiatry treatment.

Linda Avery, 60, said Tuesday morning she is down to two tanks of oxygen and can't afford to buy more. The $1,125 monthly payment is more than the combined incomes of her and her husband. "There's no way I can afford that. I'd just die, that's all."

Beth Vincent, 50, of Salt Lake said she has phoned, e-mailed, and visited with lawmakers who "don't seem to understand" that their fixes haven't fixed everything. She has several health problems and has had two knee replacement surgeries that will be covered by Medicaid but expensive therapy afterward that won't.

"I can't imagine having the surgeries done, and not having physical therapy," she said. "That's like having a pacemaker put in and saying sorry, no batteries." Around 9 p.m., Shurtleff offered the group a TV and went home.

He said he had phoned Gov. Mike Leavitt, who decided to let the group spend the night, rather than kicking them out to find their way home in the dark.

But Shurtleff did express concern about the precedent the act could set for other groups. "I don't know if it made a difference," Barbara Toomer, spokeswoman for the Disabled Right Action Committee of Salt Lake, said Tuesday morning. Toomer added that lawmakers noticed the group when they came to work but most didn't seem interested in stopping to chat.

Sen. Ed Mayne, sadly agreed. "I think most [legislators] block it out. Not all of them, but most. They block out the hurt and the sorrow." Disabled citizen activist also staged a similar protest during Gov. Norm Bangeter's administration. A group spent the night in the governor's office and the following morning, Bangeter announced the funding was restored.