Rep. Dunnigan is pushing to establish a respite care center for Utah’s homeless population

Representative Jim Dunnigan is hoping to give homeless Utahns “a chance for a better life” with a bill he is sponsoring this session. Dunnigan’s HB 34, which recently passed through the Utah House Health and Human Services Committee, would create a respite care program for homeless Utahns. 

According to Dunnigan, these individuals frequently cycle in and out of care settings. The respite care program aims to address this issue by establishing a place for homeless individuals to continue to receive treatment and recover after they are released from the emergency room.

 

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Hospitals would be able to contact the respite care center when they believe a homeless patient is ready to leave the emergency room to coordinate a transfer to the care center.

“The idea is that they’ll stay there for maybe up to two weeks to get stable, and then [the respite care center will] try to get them into either one of our new research shelters for the homeless or some other type of housing or treatment,” Dunnigan said. “It will give them a chance for a better life.”

It would also benefit the state financially, he said. Homeless individuals are eligible for Medicaid under Utah’s Medicaid expansion, so Utah would receive financial compensation from the federal government to operate this program.

“We think this will save money because instead of having so many frequent flyers in the emergency room, which Medicaid ends up paying for, these will be eligibles for the expansion Medicaid population and they can have a lower-cost care area to place them,” he said.

Dunnigan said he was motivated to sponsor the bill when he talked with the owner of a medical respite care center that had significant capacity for additional beds, but lacked the funding to obtain them. The facility was not able to receive Medicaid funding for additional beds at the time, but allocating these beds to homeless individuals would allow Utah to take advantage of Medicaid expansion provisions while providing a care center to Utahns in need.

“It requires some funding — we have to pay 10% under the Medicaid enhanced match —  but this particular facility is getting $100,000 from state funds currently,” he said. “We’re going to take that same $100,000, but we’re going to be able to draw down a nine-to-one match from the federal government, so we’ll take the $100,000, turn it into $1 million, and we’ll be able to treat a lot more people.”

Dunnigan is hopeful that the bill will pass this session. He acknowledged that some of his more conservative colleagues might be opposed to expanding Medicaid, but since Utah is already giving the facility $100,000, he believes most legislators will support the increased funding Medicaid will provide this program.

“Plus, homelessness is an issue in Utah. So I’m very optimistic,” Dunnigan said.

He expects HB 34 to be voted on in the House sometime this week.