Feds grant Medicaid waiver to help Utah’s poorest

SALT LAKE CITY -- The Trump administration has granted Utah a much sought-after Medicaid waiver, clearing the way for millions of dollars to help the homeless and needy.

In a news conference on Wednesday, Utah's political leaders cheered and breathed a sigh of relief as they were finally granted the waiver.

Lt. Governor Spencer Cox speaks to reporters at a news conference Wednesday on Medicaid waivers being granted. (Image grab from FOX 13 live feed)

"We thought all along we would get it, but we’re especially relieved we got it by today," Lt. Governor Spencer Cox told reporters.

Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, threw up his arms and cheered.

"I'm excited, and I’m not holding back!" he laughed as politicians in the room applauded.

Enrollment for health care coverage begins immediately. Under a split with the federal government, Utah picks up 30% of the costs and the feds take care of the remaining 70%. Those eligible are up to 6,000 childless adults who make little to no money. (A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found 46,000 Utahns in the coverage gap.)

The money will help provide coverage for people experiencing homelessness. It was a critical -- but missing -- component for "Operation Rio Grande," the crackdown on crime surrounding the downtown shelters. More than 1,000 people have been arrested in the operation, but many have been pushed toward treatment beds for substance abuse and mental illness.

But the state was banking on the waivers to help pay for those beds, of which there was already a shortage.

"Right now the city and county are trying to fund treatment beds with taxpayer money that was not intended for that purpose," Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski said. "So we’re pulling from other places to fill that gap."

People outside the downtown shelters in the Rio Grande neighborhood on Oct. 18, 2017. (FOX 13 file image)

The money from the federal government will allow for more treatment options to be made available.

"This is going to impact Utahns in a significant ways immediately in Operation Rio Grande," said House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper.

At Wednesday's news conference, state leaders cracked a few jokes that gave a glimpse at how nervous they were at not getting the Medicaid waivers. Throughout the Obama and Trump administrations, they lobbied for a waiver. Republican lawmakers on Utah's Capitol Hill repeatedly objected to full Medicaid expansion, citing climbing costs they argued would crush taxpayers.

In September, as Speaker Hughes and Gov. Herbert met with Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, he quit under a cloud of controversy over his travel.

Democrats who participated in the discussions over treatment and health care said while they would have preferred a full Medicaid expansion, they can live with this.

"It was not initially my preferred approach. There were other proposals that were put forward, but this was the one that was able to garner enough support to move forward in Utah," said Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams.

Tim Whalen, who oversees behavioral health services for Salt Lake County, said the waivers will be put to work to expand treatment options. Mayor Biskupski said taxpayers should expect to see faster results on homelessness.

"There is no question you will see more progress over the next year as people are transitioning through this Medicaid waiver and this funding that has come to fruition," she said.