Plans for a multiyear reformation of the way health care in Utah is gotten and given is officially on the drawing board starting Thursday when an 11-member legislative task force is to meet for the first time.

The task force will begin the design phase of rebuilding a health care system that will ultimately ensure all Utahns have access to basic health care — nearly 300,000 Utahns don't have insurance now.

Task force members must also develop some kind of cost-containment process or at least put a handle on the skyrocketing price of health care. At the current pace, the amount of money spent on health-care services in Utah will be equal to the combined annual income of Utahns by the year 2030.

Lawmakers on the special panel — both members of the panel and those who will eventually vote on its recommendations — as well as many care providers, patient advocates, business owners and insurance carriers hope the process unfolds less like a reconstruction project and more like a renaissance.

"In any case, by any assessment or however it comes together, it has to come together now," said John T. Nielsen, special health-care adviser to Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.

As it rolls out, all stakeholders, including consumers, advocates, the business community, providers, insurance companies, legislators and the governor's staff will be involved.

"If you're interested in how this is going to go and you're not at the table now, you better find a way to be," Nielsen said.

The task force will begin addressing 16 specific issues outlined in 16 bills approved earlier this year by legislators. The panel will likely appoint five or six work groups that will be assigned to develop strategies for each topic, including standards for exchanging medical records among providers, children's health insurance coverage and incentives to businesses to continue offering medical benefits — including the service companies such as restaurants that have balked at providing coverage or co-payments of insurance premiums for employees.

Top on the list of priorities is getting everyone into the insurance pool, i.e., the chronically healthy to the chronically ill. No one gets turned down, and the system must be accessible and affordable to everyone in the state.

Lawmakers have said the service industry should be expected to be pay at least a portion of their employees' insurance premiums if all Utahns are going to be expected to have some kind of insurance coverage. More than 75 percent of Utahns who have insurance coverage have it through their employer.

The desired outcomes of the effort are pretty set, but plotting strategies for getting there is the big challenge, said Judi Hilman, executive director of the Utah Health Policy Project advocacy and research group.

"What's being dealt with here is neither easily said nor easily done," she said. "The most important aspect of it is that we take advantage of a rare opportunity for people to have a say in how this basic area of daily life can be improved."

The UHPP has made a public call for personal accounts of experiences with the current health care system — both problems and successes. Those who want to share their stories can send them to [email protected].

A public strategy session sponsored by businesses, charities and government is scheduled April 30 at the University of Utah Health Sciences Education Building. Registration is required and can be completed by contacting UHPP at the above e-mail address.

Utah is not alone in its effort to retool health care. Colorado approved legislation on Tuesday to begin its own reformation plan. The effort is international as well. Thailand, Australia, and even Canada, which is regularly cited by experts as both how the U.S. should or shouldn't render its system.

Context on how it's being done around the world was provided in a documentary broadcast locally Tuesday evening on KUED Channel 7. Among the highlighted systems was Japan. The Japanese go to the doctor 15 times a year and pay half the amount spent on health care by Americans who go to the doctor five times a year.

About 700,000 Americans file bankruptcy every year due to medical bills they can't pay; no other industrialized country has bankruptcy driven by medical costs, according to the Frontline documentary.

About 17,000 American die each year from illnesses they couldn't afford to have treated. In Utah, 160 die due to lack of medical care each year.


E-mail: [email protected]