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Utah's uninsured speak out for health care access

Published: Thursday, March 6 2014 6:05 p.m. MST

Gov. Gary Herbert greets Avery Pizzuto following a panel discussion with patients and families who will benefit most from the governor's proposed alternative to Medicaid expansion, Healthy Utah, in Salt Lake City, Thursday, March 6, 2014. The discussion was held at the Fourth Street Clinic.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Avery Pizzuto lies awake at night wondering how long her mom's health will hold out.

It's a heavy topic for a 14-year-old, but she's more than anxious for her mother to get access to health care.

Avery's mother, Joy Pizzuto, of Lehi, works various contract jobs but remains uninsured. She would gain coverage if Gov. Gary Herbert's Healthy Utah Plan, an alternative to Medicaid expansion, goes through.

"I would just love to be able to know that she will be safe and not have to worry if she is OK or not. She's the only thing I have in life," Avery told Herbert and a panel of other state leaders during a media event promoting his plan at the Fourth Street Clinic, 409 W. 400 South.

"Please, let's get this going, so that way my mom will be able to have insurance," she said.

A bout with severe back pain in 2008 led doctors to perform additional tests on Pizzuto, which revealed cervical cancer in the single mother of three girls. She hasn't received medical care for the issue since.

Avery is no stranger to state health insurance programs, as she gets costly diabetic supplies through either Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program, depending on her mom's income from month to month. She said it is "pathetic" that not everyone has access to basic health care.

Herbert's plan is up against other renditions presented by the Utah Senate and the Utah House of Representatives. But the governor reserves the right to make a final decision on the matter, which is part of implementing the Affordable Care Act in Utah.

"I'm always optimistic that common sense will prevail," Herbert said Thursday.

The governor's plan seeks a waiver from the federal government that would allow him to spend an allocation of federal funds in a way he sees fit for Utahns. He anticipates the process would take up to six months before people could begin enrollment.

"We know our unique culture, our unique demographics better than people in Washington, D.C., who have come up with a one-size-fits-all solution," Herbert said, adding that he hopes the Utah Legislature doesn't "tie my hands" with a plan that has strings attached.

With a block grant, Herbert hopes to employ a three-year pilot program to insure 111,000 Utahns who earn up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level. Both the House and Senate plans would cover fewer than 55,000 of Utah's uninsured and would accept only a portion of available federal funding.

Pamela Atkinson, founder of the Fourth Street Clinic, an advocate to the homeless and an adviser to Herbert on matters involving the uninsured, said the governor's plan is the result of much thought and really is "the best option" for Utah.

"It wasn't just hatched in an office," she said, adding that Herbert took into account the concerns of numerous patients, doctors, nurses and religious leaders who often associate with people who are uninsured.

"This plan will help those who need help the most," Atkinson said.

For many, she said, access to health insurance will help get them back to being self-sufficient and productive members of society, not needing government assistance.

"I want to be out there," said Pizzuto, 40. "I've always been a working mom. I have no choice. I have to provide for my girls. I don't know any different, and that's what I want to do. That's what I plan on doing."

Sens. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights, and Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, gathered uninsured Utah families, including the Pizzutos, for a small public hearing Thursday night at the Capitol, hoping to add fuel to the Medicaid expansion fire.

The senators began the presentation with a question: If you could offer health care to more people at a lower cost, would you?

"The issue of Medicaid, the poor, the uninsured and how we intend to deal with this is of huge public importance, and to us personally," Shiozawa, an emergency physician, told the crowd. "Since Medicare, we've never had a bigger opportunity to make an impact on the health care in this country."

The panel included Paul Gibbs, a lifelong Utahn who learned in 2008 that both his kidneys were failing and he required an expensive transplant if he hoped to live. Gibbs' friends in the theater community reacted immediately, raising more than $10,000, but it barely put a dent in the $79,000 he needed for the surgery.

"Even with the most amazing of support systems, I couldn't have the surgery without a miracle, and that miracle was called Medicaid," Gibbs said.

For five years, Medicaid has helped Gibbs pay for monthly medications — which cost the equivalent of a two-bedroom apartment — in order to keep his body from rejecting the kidney. The transplant gave Gibbs a chance at life, he said, allowing him to continue working, study at Salt Lake Community College, get married and serve in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Starting in April, Gibbs will no longer require Medicaid to pay for his care.

"I made it," he said, his voice breaking with emotion. "A lot of people in this room don't have what I had. They don't have people raising the kind of money that was raised for me, and they don't have Medicaid. They deserve everything that I got. Everybody deserves the right to stay alive."

Gibbs says he hopes Utah legislators, leaders and residents can see past the perception that people asking for Medicaid are lazy or feel entitled. They just need help.

Email: wleonard@deseretnews.com, mromero@deseretnews.com

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