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Transit, health care discussions dominate poverty summit

Published: Saturday, Aug. 23 2014 12:45 p.m. MDT

Trax passengers board a train at the Planetarium station in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 2, 2012. Dual challenges of affordable health care and the accessibility and pricing of public transit were major topics of discussion Saturday at an annual poverty summit in Salt Lake dissecting the challenges faced by the poor and people with disabilities.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — The metropolitan area can have as many buses as there are streets, but if the fares aren't affordable, the transit system isn't working.

While Salt Lake City may boast it has top-ranked, quality health care in its stable of state-of-the-art hospitals, the system fails if people can't get treated due to financial hurdles.

This paradox that exists for many low-income people dominated the discussion at the 11th annual Poverty Partnership Summit Saturday hosted at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark.

The summit brings together advocates, faith-based community activists, government leaders and others to identify key challenges and potential solutions to the most basic threats to quality of life for Utah residents.

Salt Lake County Councilman Sam Granato detailed the county's push to Utah lawmakers in support of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's "Healthy Utah" program to shore up the gap of uninsured residents in the state.

The council unanimously threw its bi-partisan support behind Herbert's plan as a way to address the vulnerabilities of as many as 111,000 low-income Utahns who don't have access to any health care coverage.

Granato added that the plan is a good "Utah alternative" to the health care crisis that currently keeps parents from taking sick children to the doctor and keeps the elderly away from critical wellness checkups.

"Healthy Utah is not a one-size fits all approach," he said, reading from a letter to legislators penned earlier this summer. "It allows Utah to craft a plan for coverage that meets the unique needs of Utah families."

The Healthy Utah plan is not another version of Medicaid expansion, but sets forth a method to secure federal funds for the state to implement a program in which participants would pay based on their ability to do so. Plans would be offered through private insurers to protect the local market. It would cover low-income adults below 138 percent of the federal poverty level.

Linda Johnson said Herbert's plan is a good one, but pressure needs to be brought on lawmakers to get it implemented.

A board member of Breathe Utah, she suggested that supporters of expanded health care coverage for the poor model their approach after clean air advocates who staged the largest modern-day rally this year at the start of the Utah Legislature, an event drawing thousands.

"You need to get thousands and thousands of people to organize," she said. "They (the Legislature) quivered and gave in and we got what we needed. They passed 15 clean air bills, which has never happened."

Participants also stressed the need to better connect the low-income with public transit by making it more affordable and more accessible.

"People from all walks of life want to ride transit, especially with our air quality, but we need to make it a political priority," said Salt Lake City Councilman Luke Garrott. "We have an uphill battle to get funding for public transit in Utah, but a dollar a day with our Hive Pass is a good place to start."

The Hive Pass is a pilot project launched by Salt Lake City and the Utah Transit Authority in March. The program is only available to Salt Lake City residents, but it costs just $30 a month for access to traditional UTA services like TRAX, buses and FrontRunner.

Salt Lake City officials hope to keep the program going permanently — 2,500 people have signed up so far – but much of its survival depends on robust participation by residents, said Julianne Sabula, transit manager for Salt Lake City.

Garrott added the program has the full support of the city, and Jeremey Keele, senior policy adviser for Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams added that the county is watching it closely as an option for expansion.

"There is strong will at City Hall among the mayor and City Council to keep the Hive Pass going," Garrott stressed.

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com

Twitter: amyjoi16

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