Deseret Morning News graphic

As much as he wants to, Keith Trickett cannot provide health insurance for the spouses or children of his 10 full-time employees. He just can't afford it.

The small-business owner already pays upward of 10 percent of his employees' salaries for coverage for his workers, costs that continue to rise year after year.

"What makes any business is people. You've got to look after your people," said Trickett, owner of the Closet Factory in West Valley City. "And right now it's very hard to do that."

Trickett is one of many Utah small-business owners who say they, for the right price, would buy into the existing Public Employee Health Plan (PEHP) to provide coverage for their employees and families. In a survey released Thursday by the Utah Health Policy Project, an overwhelming 83 percent said they would take part in the proposed program.

A bill to open up the private, nonprofit health plan to Utah businesses with fewer than 50 employees failed to receive legislative approval this year. PEHP provides coverage to 180,000 people, mostly state employees and county, city and school district workers.

According to the survey, 50 percent of business owners questioned said they would cover 75 percent to 100 percent of the premium under the plan, while another 26 percent said they would cover at least half the premium. The survey was based on a theoretical case in which coverage through PEHP would cost $300 per worker per month.

Judi Hilman with the Utah Health Policy Project said the survey shows small-business owners are struggling with ways to provide affordable health insurance for their employees and looking for alternatives to do so. The data released Thursday proves the PEHP buy-in is a viable solution to reducing the ranks of Utah's uninsured, she said.

"We really thought, and we still believe, that we were hitting on a sustainable solution," Hilman said.

Close to three-quarters of the approximately 300,000 uninsured Utahns are estimated to be employed at small businesses or dependents of those employees.

Salt Lake County is home to 30,000 businesses with fewer than 50 employees, and 72 percent of those have fewer than 10 workers. Allowing those companies to buy into PEHP would lower costs by spreading their risk among all beneficiaries — the original purpose of insurance, said former Utah Congressman Bill Orton.

"What we have to get back to is the concept of spreading risk," said Orton, a board member of the group that released the 2006 Small Business Health Coverage Pilot Survey.

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. has, in the past, been supportive of the proposed PEHP buy-in. He has appointed a working group to study issues surrounding the uninsured in Utah, and a sub-group is focusing on the problems facing small businesses. The group is not expected to release any findings or proposed legislation for several months.

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