Intermountain Health Care may have been placed in the hot seat this session on Capitol Hill, but after all the smoke and stink cleared, the health care organization escaped without getting burned.

Despite efforts to tax the state's largest hospital network, despite efforts to ensure any resident could go to any doctor or hospital of their choice, the status quo remains.

The resulting sound and fury, however, had IHC officials sitting up and taking notice, making their presence known with employees and rallies and advertising campaigns in a show of force that rivaled the reaction of any special interest group this session.

Lawmakers backed off, but the boxing match led to the birth of the Privately Owned Health Care Organization Task Force, a compromise crafted in a "memorandum of understanding" agreed to by legislative leadership and IHC officials.

In exchange for lawmakers taking the tax threat off the table, IHC agreed to full cooperation — as well as a media campaign — in support of the new goals outlined in the latest version of SB61 sponsored by Sen. Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville.

Comprised of 15 members and bolstered by $300,000 worth of actuarial and economic services, the task force, over a two-year period, will review market penetration in the heath care market, business and financial practices and how they impact consumers, as well as the tax exempt status of IHC.

The task force, both sides hope, will clear any of the fallout from the fight on Capitol Hill.

"We feel this will be carried out in a fair and objective way and welcome the opportunity to participate fully and openly in the task force study," said IHC spokesman Daron Cowley.

"We think through this process there may be some good suggestions that will allow us to do a better job and we are certainly open to those suggestions and that input. We think ultimately this open exchange will benefit everyone in Utah."

As originally proposed, SB61 would have established a 3 percent gross receipts tax on IHC. It was later substituted to demand the health care organization divest itself of its insurance company, and then IHC officials and legislative leadership agreed to a memorandum of understanding establishing the task force.

Supporters of SB34 — which would have implemented an "Any Willing Provider" law in Utah — blame last-minute political maneuvering for its demise and heavy-handed tactics by opponents, largely the Utah Health Insurance Association and IHC.

Despite its successive death the last two sessions, its sponsor, Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, vows he won't give up.

"I'll be back next session," adding he is going to start compiling statistical armament to bolster passage of the bill, which would allow consumers to patronize the doctor or medical facility of their choosing, even if not on their insurance plan. As long as the provider is willing to accept 95 percent of the plan's reimbursement rate, patients are free to "swing out" of a health maintenance organization or preferred provider plan.

But critics say allowing such mobility in the marketplace of health care will ultimately drive up costs — not only for consumers and their relationships with their doctors but for employers who will see insurance costs rise.


E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com