Rising food and health-care costs are affecting all Utahns, but they are forcing the state's poor to sometimes go without food and often medical services most of the time.

According to a survey of 700 low-income residents during April and May by Crossroad Urban Center's Anti-Hunger Action Committee advocacy group, economic harm from the two out-of-control costs of living is not only greater, Utah's poor are also being driven deeper in debt than their better-off counterparts.

Among the findings of the survey that polled visitors to local Utah food banks the past seven weeks:

• 70 percent reported either skipping a meal or going to an emergency food pantry sometime during the past twelve months because they were unable to afford needed medical care.

• 71 percent of the families interviewed reported foregoing medical care — ranging from prescription medications to treatment for leukemia — because they don't have insurance and couldn't afford to buy treatment.

• 63 percent reported having no medical insurance.

• 24 percent had been kicked off a government-funded health insurance program because of paperwork problems that most said they didn't understand.

The survey also found that medical debt is routine for low-income Utahns. Nearly three out of every four of the households reported having a medical bill sent to a collection agency, and more than 25 percent reported using a payday lender to pay for a medical bill or visit.

What can be done about the situation is the topic of a free public meeting, called by the action committee, at 6:30 p.m. tonight in the fourth-floor conference room of the Salt Lake City Main Library. Anyone interested in learning what options are available are welcome, said spokesman Bill Tibbitts.

As more Utahns either lose their insurance or are moved into health insurance plans with high out-of-pocket expenses, more Utahns will be unable afford basic health care or will accumulate debt that will limit their access to credit, decent housing and future medical care, he said. There are some solutions, however.

For one, Tibbitts suggested that hospitals can adopt charity care and fair billing policies. According to research and advocacy group Families USA, hospitals charge the uninsured up to 250 percent more than they charge those with insurance. The group also reports that many hospitals refuse to set up a reasonable payment plan with a patient before sending a bill to a collection agency.

Another option is for local governments to review contracts with ambulance companies and other health-care healthcare providers to ensure they promote decent billing practices. Ambulance companies and other providers could set up reasonable payment plans for low-income patients.

The meeting will also address whether state government can expand access to the Medicaid and CHIP medical programs for children and low-income so more could afford coverage. State lawmakers could also consider legislation requiring hospitals to adopt or follow fair billing practices.

For more information about the meeting or other programs offered through Crossroads, call 364-7765 or e-mail bill@crossroads-u-c.org.


E-mail: jthalman@desnews.com