5 Things Utah: DOH merger update, “Safe UT” app proves successful, Q&A w/ Ashley Moretz

This edition of “5 Things We’re Watching” features an update on Utah’s DOH-DHS merger, a conversation on the state of rural hospitals with DOH’s Ashley Moretz, and the SafeUT app’s success at supporting mental health needs during the pandemic.

Thanks for reading, and if you have any tips or recommendations for what you want to see us report on, I encourage your input!


Eli Kirshbaum
Health Policy Reporter
State of Reform 
With help from Patrick Jones

1. In-progress DHHS announces leadership positions

With the merger of the Utah Department of Health Services and the Department of Human Services set to complete in July 2022, the state has released an organizational chart detailing the leadership of the consolidated department. Tracy Gruber, the current executive director of DHS, will take on the same role at DHHS, and Nathan Checketts, who currently leads DOH, will be the new agency’s deputy director of health care administration.

DOH’s Interim Medicaid Director Emma Chacon and the Director of DHS’s Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Doug Thomas explained that one of the merger’s main goals is integrating physical and mental health, and they are exploring different integration models, including the Utah Medicaid Integrated Care Model. The merger’s Steering Committee will submit a transition plan for the new department to Gov. Cox by Dec. 1.


2. Q&A: Ashley Moretz details remaining needs of Utah’s rural hospitals

Utah’s rural hospitals have benefited from some of the past year’s federal financial support, but these facilities still face unique challenges, according to Ashley Moretz, director of DOH’s Office of Primary Care & Rural Health. In this Q&A, Moretz says that while programs like SHIP and bolstered federal funding have helped keep rural hospitals afloat, there is still work to be done to ensure adequate broadband access, health insurance coverage, and workforce retention in the state’s rural communities.

In addition to high uninsured rates among rural populations, telehealth adoption is lagging in less populous areas due to uneven broadband access throughout the state, Moretz said. He praised Gov. Cox’s prioritization of widespread broadband access in his One Utah Roadmap, but emphasized that the “critical” expansion of telehealth to rural communities will take some time. “… getting that infrastructure in place is critical … so that people can have the time to adapt and increase their trust in new ways of getting their health care,” he said.


3. “SafeUT” helped save lives during pandemic

The SafeUT Commission‘s recent 2020-2021 annual report showed Utahns engaged more with the mental health crisis app, having had 9,000 more “chats” in FY 2021 than FY 2020. With 87.8% of K-12 schools and universities currently enrolled in SafeUT, around 50,000 more students used the app in FY 2021 than in FY 2020.

Areas of the state with high COVID-19 rates had higher usages of the app, which the report said helped save the lives of Utahns struggling with pandemic-induced mental health issues. “Safe UT played a heroic role connecting people with the care they needed, right when they needed it most,” said Ric Cantrell, chair of the SafeUT Commission.


4. New Medicaid enrollees face disenrollment once PHE ends

A new Urban Institute study shows “unprecedented” job loss caused Utah to have some of the highest growth in Medicaid enrollment during the pandemic, which could mean many Utahns are facing a loss of coverage once the PHE’s disenrollment prohibition ends. With this prohibition expected to expire at the end of 2021, the study predicts Utah could lose over 200,000 Medicaid enrollees over the next six months.

According to the study, the timing of Utah’s Medicaid expansion was a key driver in the state’s nation-leading Medicaid enrollment during the pandemic, as adults with incomes between 100% and 138% of the FPL became eligible for Medicaid in Jan. 2020. The study emphasized that policymakers still have time to address the imminent backlog of Medicaid recipients and identify alternative coverage opportunities once the PHE ends.


5. Uncertain outlook for Build Back Better Act

“Nothing about the Biden spending plan is certain, including its health provisions.” That’s according to State of Reform columnist Jim Capretta, who in his latest piece dives into the weeds of the health provisions up for discussion in the Build Back Better Act in Congress.

Capretta outlines the state of play for some of the most expensive items being hashed out by lawmakers including the national ACA reinsurance program, Biden’s proposed $400 billion ten-year expansion of Medicaid HCBS, and dental, vision, and hearing coverage for Medicare. Capretta says the fate of the bill is highly uncertain and could be decided in a few weeks. Or, he reasons, conversations may continue through the end of the year and potentially into 2022.