5 Things Utah: Q&A w/ Jennifer Strohecker, Social services funding, Public health trust


Eli Kirshbaum


This newsletter features a conversation with the newly appointed state Medicaid director, coverage of the proposed FY 2022-2023 social services budget, and insight from a policy expert on the status of trust in public health.

Thanks, as always, for reading!

Eli Kirshbaum
State of Reform 


1. Q&A: Medicaid Director Jennifer Strohecker on her new role

The Utah Department of Health has developed a strategic plan in collaboration with the Department of Workforce Services to help Medicaid beneficiaries navigate coverage changes once the PHE ends, according to Utah’s new Medicaid director Jennifer Strohecker. In this Q&A, Strohecker discusses Medicaid redetermination preparation, how state officials are preparing for the DOH-DHS merger, and curbing opioid abuse.

She says Utah’s recent reforms to its opioid policy, which address inappropriate prescribing and dangerous drug combinations, are “enormous strides” and will continue to be adhered to going forward. Formerly the state’s Medicaid pharmacy director, Strohecker says, “It’s about striking the right balance around creating policies that support safe new therapies, but also allowing pathways for policy exceptions for patients who need higher doses or perhaps longer durations of therapy.”


2. Topical Agenda for 2022 Utah State of Reform Health Policy Conference now available!

The Topical Agenda for the 2022 Utah State of Reform Health Policy Conference is now available! Through robust collaboration with our Convening Panel, key stakeholders, and sponsors, we’ve curated this agenda to include conversations on some of the most pressing topics in state health policy.

Panels will tackle topics including behavioral health, home-based care, and health data sharing. Register now to secure your spot at the event, which will be held in-person at the Salt Lake Marriott Downtown at City Creek on April 7!


3. Highlights from social services budget

The Social Services Appropriations Subcommittee—which develops funding recommendations for DOH, DHS, DWS, and a part of the soon-to-be operational DHHS—submitted its $725 million budget priorities to the Executive Appropriations Committee last week. The recommendations will remain in the EAC until near the end of session, when the committee will compile all of the area-specific budget requests into a single state budget bill and present it to the governor.

Subcommittee member Sen. Michael Kennedy highlighted the significance of the subcommittee’s call for $70 million to raise the wages of HCBS caregivers in Utah, emphasizing its utility in retaining these critical staff. “With our economy as it is, you can either take care of disabled individuals—which can be a challenge—for $12 an hour, or you can go work at Chick-Fil-A for $15 an hour. It becomes a really difficult recruitment component as we look to take care of our most vulnerable individuals.”


4. Legislative work to pass BH legislation

As the Feb. 22nd deadline for presenting legislation to the governor approaches, legislators are hard at work trying to advance their bills. Behavioral health is a key focal point for lawmakers, including SB 41, which would require DOH to provide grants to local mental health authorities to expand or implement integrated BH programs, and SB 44, which would increase the maximum amount of time certain BH providers can practice.

Another bill moving through the legislature would allocate $5 million to create a program to expand mental health access for first responders. The program would fund the hiring of occupational therapists to support first responders after traumatic events and provide biannual check-ins with them. Committee testimony emphasized that the program is needed because of the trauma many first responders experience and the stigma against mental health treatment.


5. Utahns’ trust in public health is declining

Volatile public health guidance, polarization, and misinformation are fueling considerable distrust in public health in Utah and across the country, according to Derek Monson, VP of policy at the Sutherland Institute. Monson says this distrust is visible through Utah’s 60.3% vaccination rate and its resistance to public health orders like mask mandates.

Monson recommends that public health agencies make their guidance development process publicly available to increase transparency and, ideally, trust among Utahns. He also believes health leaders should admit that they made mistakes with their issuance of guidance early on in the pandemic.