A Thursday luncheon hosted by the Utah Foundation featured all four major gubernatorial candidates responding to the findings of the 2016 Utah Priorities Project. The survey conducted found that the biggest issue on the minds of Utah voters this year is healthcare.
Sahwn Teigen, Research Director with the Utah Foundation, said that while healthcare has been a big concern over the last few election cycles, its importance to voters has grown.
“Priority number one—which was a surprise to probably a lot of people and everybody in our office—is healthcare. It’s been on our top five list since 2004,” Teigan said. “It was the fifth most important for the last three gubernatorial election cycles. [During the 2010 special election] it was fourth most important and then we pop up to number one.”
State lawmakers have been debating how to fill the so-called “coverage gap” among Utahns who don’t qualify for traditional Medicaid yet can’t afford health insurance. Teigan said that other healthcare issues have kept people talking about the topic.
“We’ve seen a lot of discussion around Medicaid and, particularly, there’s been some advancement of Medicaid expansion in the state. We’ve also seen healthcare premiums increasing and people are concerned about that,” he said. “There’s also people thinking about the presidential election and we’ve got candidates that say, ‘We’re going to do what we can to hold on to the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare,’ and we’ve got other candidates that are saying, ‘We’re going to get rid of it.’ So, there’s a lot of discussion around this.”
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Vaughn Cook said that premium costs have kept many people from accessing healthcare.
“The cost of healthcare premiums have gone up so much that it’s almost prohibitive,” Cook said. “It’s times like these when we should turn our attention to people who are less fortunate than we are. People in the state who may be underemployed, people who may not have access to health insurance and, even if they did, they couldn’t afford it because their premium would eat up their entire paycheck.”
Republican incumbent Gov. Gary Herbert defended his effort to pass HealthyUtah and said that progress is being made under his administration.
“I’m proud that here in Utah we have the lowest-cost healthcare with the highest quality available in America today. We’re doing something right, we have a fewer percentage of people that don’t have access to healthcare,” Herbert said. “Our process this past legislative session, maybe it’s incremental but we’ll be able to look at the data, build upon that, and hopefully expand to more as we’re able to afford it.”
Republican challenger Jonathan Johnson said that Utah should be allowed to chart its own path to healthcare coverage.
“Medicaid expansion as it was proposed last year was relying on federal dollars and expanding it the way that the federal government wanted us to expand it. We should be working to expand it on our own terms,” Johnson said. “Under Obamacare, there’s a section called 1332 which lets states dictate how they want to Medicaid dollars. We should be spending our time figuring out how we get our dollars back without taking uncapped liabilities on our own taxpayers.”
Democratic candidate Mike Wienholtz said that the modest increase in coverage created by the legislature this year has not gone far enough.
“This bill that got passed is an insult to all Utahns. What happened was the legislature decided to cover the least amount of Utahns at the most expensive price. So, not only was this morally bankrupt but it was fiscally irresponsible,” Weinholtz said. “If we would have had full Medicaid expansion we would have over $500 million a year from the federal government coming back into the state of Utah. These are taxes that Utahns have already paid and we’re not getting them back.”
The candidates also commented on other issues such as education and air quality.