The Salt Lake County Council is sending a letter this week to the Utah legislature asking them to support the Governor’s Healthy Utah Plan and accept Medicaid funds. County councilors have said those federal funds could offset a 12 percent budget shortfall for behavioral health services expected next year. But so far, state lawmakers are holding firm in their positions on Medicaid.
Republican Senator Allen Christensen is Chair of the state’s Health Reform Task Force, and he has been opposed to an expansion of Medicaid since 2012 when the US Supreme Court decided to let states choose. Christensen says the federal government may cover the cost for the first couple of years, but eventually the state would have to pay an increasing share to provide health coverage for low-income citizens. For Christensen, expanding Medicaid would just be shifting the burden from the county to the state.
“We’ve got to put out tens of millions of dollars in order for other people to save some dollars,” Christensen says. “That doesn’t figure very well in my book.” Christensen has not yet seen the letter from Salt Lake County Council, but he doesn’t think it will change his mind. “I realize that counties are on the hook for behavioral health. I’m not sure that expanding Medicaid is going to help them out.”
Christensen believes that extending health coverage to more people will just increase demand for county services, further overloading the system. Democratic Representative Rebecca Chavez-Houck says the county has been quite clear that Medicaid funds would help offset costs for substance abuse and mental health services, as well as corrections. In fact Chavez-Houck says Salt Lake County has been vocal about this since last year.
“It’s a frustration to me, obviously, because we could have provided that support for the county,” Chavez-Houck says. “The longer we wait, the more challenges that they face.” Chavez-Houck, who also serves on an appropriations subcommittee, says the state will have to respond to funding requests from counties that continue to serve the state’s uninsured population. “We’re not going to be held harmless as a state in terms of the requests that we get from counties for socials services if they can’t make ends meet in this regard.”
Chavez-Houck says she would like to hear from other counties outside of Salt Lake, to better inform lawmakers about the impacts of their decisions.