In this month’s edition, we focus on the legislature, where lawmakers have been hard at work developing legislation related to behavioral healthcare, older Utahns’ health, health information sharing, and much more. This year’s legislative session ends one week from today, on March 3rd.
Six rural Utah hospitals were recently named among the best in the country in the Chartis Group’s ranking of the top 100 rural and community hospitals for 2023, with the Utah Hospital Association telling State of Reform the robust collaboration among larger health systems in the state to support rural facilities was a key contributor to their success.
“As rural hospitals close across the nation, not one rural hospital has closed in Utah and to the contrary [rural hospitals] have mostly thrived,” said Greg Rosenvall, UHA’s Rural Hospital Improvement Director. “This is indicative of strong leadership. The leaders of Utah’s rural hospitals are among the best anywhere.”
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State of Reform
1. Utah now prohibits gender-affirming care for minors
After taking only 10 days to pass both chambers of the legislature, the bill to ban the provision of gender-affirming care on minors in the state is now law. Gov. Cox signed SB 16 late last month, saying it’s “not a perfect bill” to address the “terribly divisive issue.” He nonetheless affirmed his support, echoing proponents’ framing of the issue as protecting the safety of Utah children.
ACLU of Utah—who called on the governor to veto the bill—intends to soon file a lawsuit against the state to repeal the legislation. After it was signed, ACLU Deputy Director for Transgender Justice Chase Strangio pushed back against the arguments that it promotes children’s well-being, referencing the emotional opposing testimony the bill received. “Claims of protecting our most vulnerable with these laws ring hollow when lawmakers have trans children’s greatest protectors—their parents, providers, and the youth themselves—pleading in front of them not to cut them off from their care,” he said.
2. Lawmakers set to approve creation of Master Plan on Aging
A bill to require the creation of a Master Plan on Aging in Utah has received approval from both chambers of the legislature and is now undergoing final discussions related to its fiscal impact. The Utah Commission on Aging, which was established in 2008 to provide annual reports to lawmakers about the health of older Utahns, has been instrumental in crafting this legislation and would be tasked with creating this 10-year roadmap for aging Utahns’ health.
In a recent Q&A with State of Reform, UCOA Executive Director Rob Ence said his organization already has a master plan drafted, discussed what the plan will entail, and outlined how it will improve the health of older Utahns. “We should be doing a master plan whether this legislation passes or not. What [SB 104] does is put the legislative stamp on it with agreed-upon deadlines, [the first iteration of which] will be due in early November,” he said. “That’s why so many pieces are already in play, but not necessarily in place.”
3. Legislature focuses on behavioral health
HB 248, which would allocate $5 million in grants from Utah’s Community Supports Waiver for counties to establish assertive community treatment teams, has passed the House and is undergoing final negotiations in the Senate. ACT provides long-term home and community-based services for individuals with serious mental illness. Research has demonstrated ACT’s effectiveness in reducing hospitalizations for this population.
Lawmakers are also poised to pass HB 59, which amends last year’s HB 23 to make its provision of mental health services for first responders ongoing. It expands beneficiaries to include spouses of retired first responders, among other individuals. To address the lack of mental health professionals who understand the work of first responders, legislators are also advancing HB 278 to create a grant program that would train retired first responders to become mental health therapists.
4. Bill to establish health information exchange nears passage
HB 239, a bill that would increase access to health data for patients and providers, is making its way through the legislature. It would require DHHS to work with stakeholders to establish a centralized health information exchange for patient health data. “The primary reason that we even keep patient data is so that the patient themselves can be benefited from it,” Rep. Raymond Ward said in supporting testimony.
Some stakeholders have expressed concern about breaches of patient privacy, but advocates have affirmed that stringent protection protocols would be enforced. Additionally, patients would still be able to opt in or out of the exchange. The legislation is intended to address administrative hurdles in accessing health data that can lead to delays in diagnoses, increased costs, and wastes of time and resources.
5. Utah Medicaid could soon cover doulas, expanded dental care
As part of Utah lawmakers’ efforts to strengthen maternal health this session, the legislature is advancing SB 192 to require Medicaid to cover doula services in the state. “Doula care right now is very much a luxury service just because it’s pretty costly to be able to support the doulas doing the work. A lot of people can’t afford it. And it’s a very important service for parents…” said Utah Valley Doulas owner Kylee Alejandre in committee testimony.
SB 19, a bill that would expand the kinds of individuals who are eligible to receive Medicaid dental coverage, is positioned to soon be sent to the governor. Currently, only certain categories of Medicaid patients can receive dental coverage in the state, such as individuals who are pregnant or above age 65. This bill would allow Medicaid beneficiaries 21 and older to receive dental coverage.