SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Health Exchange, which has operated under a pilot program for the last year, is now available to small businesses across the state.

With the help of the new model, qualifying businesses with up to 50 associated individuals, can offer expanded health care coverage to their employees while controlling their health benefit costs.

"In Utah, we have moved forward with our own innovative reform without the one-size-fits-all restraints being imposed on us by the federal government," said Gov. Gary Herbert, who said the exchange "is quickly becoming a model for the rest of the nation when it comes to health care reform."

Employees of participating Utah businesses can now use the exchange to "shop" for health insurance policies that best fit their individual needs, similar to arming employees with a debit card of sorts, to use for health insurance. If an employee desires a more expensive plan than what the employer covers, the employee would then make up the difference themselves. The defined contribution component, according to Utah's Office of Consumer Health Services spokesman Matt Spencer, is the cornerstone of the exchange system.

Rather than have one or two options that are pre-selected by their employers, workers can choose from more than 60 different plans from four of Utah's largest insurance companies: Humana, Regence, Select Health and United Healthcare.

By state statute, all plans offered through the Utah Health Exchange must meet federal standards for employer-sponsored coverage, which ensures all plans offered provide quality coverage from responsible carriers. It is also expected that the element of consumer choice — employees selecting their plans directly from carriers — will put downward pressure on prices and upward pressure on coverage quality.

"The exchange is a critical component in moving toward a patient-centric, consumer-based system that empowers the consumer and helps to reduce costs and improve quality," said Spencer Eccles, executive director of the Governor's Office of Economic Development, which manages the exchange.

The employer application process began Wednesday and runs through Sept. 15, for plans scheduled to begin Jan. 1. Information and applications are available online at For plans beginning after that date, employers must apply 90 days prior to the date that benefits would need to take effect.

"Utah has a thriving small business community, and this will help leverage the power of that community to expand insurance coverage and choice throughout the state," Herbert said.