SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Democrats are calling on the public to step up support for full Medicaid expansion.
"Health care should be available as a right to every citizen in this country," said Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, who is sponsoring a bill in the Utah Legislature that would expand Medicaid eligibility to anyone who earns under 138 percent of the federal poverty level. He said SB77 "doesn't discriminate" among Utahns, nor is it limiting, but covers anyone who can't afford health care because of a restrictive income.
"We're talking about real people, real lives and real families," said LDS Democrats Chairwoman Crystal Young-Otterstrom. She said her Mormon beliefs lead her to support a move that would be compassionate to Utahns in need.
"As Mormons, we strive to live as emissaries of Christ and providing health care assistance to disadvantaged families is part of our Christian duty," Young-Otterstrom said, adding that providing assistance to needy families "helps them reach self-reliance."
Grant Burningham, a member of the LDS Democratic caucus, said he suffered a medical complication while participating in a clinical trial more than a decade ago. Resulting illness left him out of work and, consequently, without health insurance.
"I suffer. I'm not dead. But I'm not living," he said Thursday following a news conference organized by the Utah Democratic Party. The 56-year-old said he believes his health issues — including an immune system disorder, Crohn's disease and other debilitating issues — could be fixed.
"I'm still fixable, but it won't be cheap," he said. Getting access to insurance, which Burningham would only achieve under Davis' plan, would help him get back to work.
In addition, "I'd be able to stay off the welfare rolls and prevent my own homelessness," said Burningham, who lives in an unfinished portion of his father's basement in Bountiful.
"This will not get support because Democrats are calling for it," said Utah Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon. "It will be because of stories from people like Mr. Burningham who are living that life."
Corroon said Davis' bill would cover 105,000 Utahns at a price tag of $44 million for the state. Full expansion of Medicaid programs, covering those who make up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, would qualify for a 90 percent funding match from the federal government, as stipulated in the Affordable Care Act.
Davis said that would mean a return of $532 million to Utah's economy.
"Health care dollars go directly into the economy. They go to services," he said, adding that for the past four years when Utah could have made a decision on the matter, the state has left federal match dollars "sitting on the table."
Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, is pushing a bill that would expand existing program benefits to the state's poorest, mostly childless adults who are part of Utah's homeless population. Expansion under his proposal is capped at helping 17,000 Utahns at a price tag of $40 million.
"What about the others?" Corroon asked. "What about the thousands of hardworking Utahns, their children, their families, our friends and neighbors in desperate need of medical coverage?"
He asked Utahns to contact their representative lawmakers and ask for support of full expansion of Medicaid in Utah.
Dunnigan's bill, HB437, has gained favor of a House committee, and Republican leaders have said they would back it, though it has yet to be debated among the full body of lawmakers. The proposal, which Dunnigan has said is unrelated to provisions of the Affordable Care Act, is expected to be supported by the governor as well.
Corroon is calling the blanketed support "an election-year cop-out," saying it is meant to appease the majority by reaching a small hand to the minority.
If Dunnigan's bill passes, Burningham, speaking as a representative of others in his situation, said, "I would be one of those left behind."