Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News
Anni Sanchez, on lap of mom Ana Torres, gets one-year immunizations at a Salt Lake clinic. Statistics show 400,000 Utahns were without health insurance last year; many go without preventive medicine.

Thousands of Utahns such as Mike Rice constantly live with dread and worry over the subject of health insurance.

Rice, who spoke Friday during a meeting at Shriners Hospital for Children Intermountain, said he isn't sure how he's going to afford the $43,000 in outstanding medical bills stemming from his wife's health issues.

At the same time, Rice is dreading another sudden medical emergency that may come up with his uninsured 12-year-old grandson who is living with him — last year it cost Rice $1,200 to stitch up the boy after an accident involving a telephone pole.

Rice and a mix of employers and health-care experts gathered at Shriners Hospital to rally behind a "bold" new health coverage proposal being driven by the Utah Health Policy Project, a nonpartisan and nonprofit think tank.

Called "The Utah Health Cooperative: Community Input Edition," the current draft of the proposal urges a more efficient allocation of public funds for health care.

"We will make sure everyone has a medical home," said Judi Hilman, UHPP executive director.

For starters, Hilman said she'd like to see the Children's Health Insurance Program fully funded by this summer.

As for the new proposal, one goal is find a salve for the fiscal pain inflicted on employers, particularly small businesses, that are hit by continually rising insurance premiums.

Liberty Heights Fresh's Steven Rosenberg and Air & Sea International's John Lund told those at the meeting that Rosenberg's young employees can't afford insurance, and it costs Lund more than $6,000 a year to help insure seven employees.

"This comes very close to home," said Rosenberg, who has a family member about to undergo a fourth round of cancer treatments. He said the proposal is a step in the right direction and urged state leaders to work toward changes in Utah's health-care industry.

At issue are statistics that show more than 400,000 Utahns going without health insurance in 2006, leading to a high rate of uninsured children, the UHPP points out.

Dr. Karen Buchi said uninsured children are five times more likely to encounter a delay in access to medical care or an unfulfilled need, such as treating an ear infection or tooth abscess. While preventive medicine is often not available to uninsured children, she added, the cost of their care jumps when a simple procedure turns into a visit to the emergency room.

When it comes to public employees, ever-rising premiums impact everyone, according to Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon.

"The bottom line is, this system is broken," Corroon said Friday. "We need to make changes."

Every year his administration faces the task of trying to provide affordable health-care coverage while the county's cost in the equation keeps going up. Corroon said it becomes a decision on how to help his employees without raising taxes.

"That's an issue I hate to face on a yearly basis," he added.

The UHPP is asking that all Utahns become involved in ongoing discussions about the draft proposal. One way is to visit the Web site, www.healthpolicyproject.org/blog, and post comments or questions.

People can also e-mail Hilman at [email protected] or they can attend one of several town meetings planned prior to a final draft of the proposal in August.


E-mail: [email protected]