SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert and the group charged with coming up with a plan this summer for Medicaid expansion in Utah are being urged instead "to find a way out from under Washington, D.C.'s, thumb."
The call to reconsider Medicaid expansion comes in a letter from the Sutherland Institute, a conservative public policy think tank; the libertarian-leaning Libertas Institute; the Utah Chapter of Americans for Prosperity; and the Utah Eagle Forum.
Citing concerns over using the money available to the state under President Barack Obama's health reform law to provide coverage to low-income Utahns, the letter dated Monday warns against "embracing Obamacare by expanding Medicaid."
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said the letter won't affect the work of the group, announced after the governor failed to get his Healthy Utah alternative to Medicaid expansion passed during the 2015 Legislature.
"I appreciate the letter. It's informative to us as far as their feelings are concerned," Niederhauser said. "But as far as influencing the process, it's premature at this point."
And, he said, there was nothing new in the letter.
"I don't think we're hearing anything from them we haven't heard before except this is more formalized," the Senate president said, promising there will be a time for organizations on both sides of the debate to be heard.
For now, he said the group — which includes House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper; House Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville; and Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights — is meeting privately to review information.
"What we're trying to do is our own discovery of the facts," Niederhauser aid. "As far as impact from outside influences, we're trying to avoid that right now."
Derek Monson, Sutherland's director of public policy, said the letter is "meant to provide some perspective and some guidance" from organizations that agree the Affordable Care Act is not the solution to bring health care to low-income Utahns.
"What Obamacare is designed to do is to expand entitlement and welfare programs," Monson said. "We're not trying to make poverty tolerable. We're trying to get people out of poverty."
The letter warns of "thousands of able-bodied, childless, working-age adults" competing for access to health care with impoverished families, the elderly, the disabled and other vulnerable Utahns.
It also states the federal government's 90 percent share of Medicaid expansion is an "unrealistically generous match rate" that won't last, leaving Utah taxpayers to foot a bill that could exceed "hundreds of millions of dollars."
Utah Department of Health Executive Director David Patton, who helped negotiate the federal waivers needed for Healthy Utah with the Obama administration, said arguments in the letter were "disingenuous."
Patton objected to the characterization of Utahns earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level who would be covered by Healthy Utah as "basically lazy people" who chose not to work or have health care.
"We know that is totally false. We know most of the people in this group have jobs. They work. They just don't have jobs with health care," Patton said, noting that it's a group that includes the chronically ill and single parents.
Some 60,000 Utahns earning less than 100 percent of the federal poverty level fall into what's called a coverage gap because they don't qualify for any health care subsidies without some form of Medicaid expansion.
Patton said the letter could influence lawmakers who will be asked to approve a Medicaid expansion plan. The governor has set a July 31 deadline for the group to finish its work and has said he will call a special session of the Legislature.
Recently, one of the organizations that signed the letter, Americans for Prosperity, sent out mailers thanking several House members for their opposition to Medicaid expansion
The organization, new to Utah, is the main political advocacy group for the Koch brothers, the billionaire industrialists pouring millions of dollars into conservative and libertarian causes.
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of the BYU Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said the letter about Medicaid expansion should be seen as a sign there's going to be plenty of opposition.
"It does appear to be a concerted effort to keep the pressure on the governor and push in the direction of something other than Medicaid expansion, and something other than the governor's Healthy Utah option," Karpowitz said.
Utah voters, however, want to see a solution, he said.
"My sense is Utah voters won't be happy with continued gridlock on this," Karpowitz said. "Utahns are pragmatic. They want to get things done. There seems to be a plurality of voters at least who would like to expand coverage to those who need it."
Niederhauser said the group is "trying to be on track" to meeting the deadline set by the governor.
"We've got a long way to go. July 31, that's still in our sights," the Senate president said. "But at the end of the day, the process is going to be what the process is, maybe a little bit longer potentially."