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Health care costs lowest in Utah

Published: Monday, April 22 2013 5:50 p.m. MDT

Utah residents pay the least of any state for health care, according to a recent Wall Street Journal nationwide analysis.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah residents pay the least of any state for health care, according to a recent Wall Street Journal nationwide analysis.

The benefits, while mostly borne by the healthy, can be felt by all Utahns, as the health care costs are driven by a variety of available and competitive insurance plans.

"To be the lowest is not the end goal. We want to push it down to a level of affordability so that everybody can have access to the care they need," said Steve Burrows, marketing and strategic planning director for SelectHealth, the insurance arm of Intermountain Healthcare, which is one of Utah's largest providers of health care.

While the state's demographics play a role in low health care spending, Burrows said Utah's built-in culture of conservatism and self-reliance also makes people more interested in making good choices and therefore pre-empting the need for expensive procedures and treatment.

"It starts with our citizens and members of health plans being conscious about their own health, trying where possible to prevent problems, and being educated enough to know what to do once problems occur," he said, adding that doctors are also researching, learning and applying best practices to provide the best outcomes.

SelectHealth, which is available to residents from southern Idaho to St. George, is also working on innovative ways to deliver care to more rural areas of the state, using virtual and telehealth technologies, Burrows said. Providing on-site care will allow the patient to determine when and where they need help, largely eliminating a rush on emergency care, which can be the most expensive to provide and receive.

"It's about keeping populations healthy and making sure the right services are available at the right time," Burrows said.

The state, which averaged $5,031 spent on health care per person in 2009, leads the nation in low costs spent for hospital care and for physician and clinic services, and boasts some of the lowest overall spending for prescription medications, nursing home care and other professional services.

Utah has one of the highest per capita spending rates, however, on dental care, and falls in the middle for home health care, according to the Wall Street Journal report.

Health care spending across the country averaged $6,815 in 2009 — according to the latest data available from the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the U.S. Census Bureau, which was used to compile the report.

The New York-based publication attributes the low-spending trend in Utah to its "young and healthy population."

Burrows said the state's location, nestled in the Rocky Mountains, also provides ample opportunities for recreation and physical activity, as well as a desirable place for physicians to live.

Utahns spent an average of $1,830 on hospital care each year and another $1,189 for physician and clinic services, contrary to what other states spent in those categories, which typically make up the bulk of health care spending in most states.

The highest costs for hospital care were found in Washington, D.C., where citizens paid an average of $4,948 per capita in 2009, which is nearly three times Utah's average spending.

Utah ranks seventh in the nation for its obesity rate, a fact that saves money in terms of otherwise expensive health conditions, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some types of cancer, according to the Journal.

Utah is also recognized for its continued efficiency in health care spending.

"Our population density along the Wasatch Front also makes it easier to serve a significant portion of the state in a cost-effective manner," said David Gessel, Utah Hospital Association vice president of government relations and legal affairs. The association represents dozens of hospitals and health care systems within Utah and neighboring states.

He said continuing legislative efforts also help to keep malpractice rates and claims in check, which also keeps costs low.

Emerging collaboration of care across the state is helping, too, to treat patients more efficiently from routine screenings to invasive treatment, when needed. "A lot of times, care provided sooner is better," Burrows said.

Other states where health care spending is lowest include Idaho, Colorado, Arizona, Texas, Nevada and Georgia. The highest spending on health care costs can be found in Massachusetts and Alaska, where residents paid an average of more than $9,000 in 2009 to maintain their health.

"Low is fine, but we're driving it to levels of affordability," Burrows said, adding that systems in Utah, including the nonprofit insurer SelectHealth, are working to take unnecessary care out of the system and provide the best products for residents of the state.

A variety of different carriers in the state, he said, also help to drive lower costs for consumers.

Email: wleonard@deseretnews.com

Twitter: wendyleonards

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