In an effort to show they are part of the health-care crisis solution, not the problem, a contingent of medical insurance executives spent Wednesday in Salt Lake talking with a contingent of small business executives and state lawmakers.

Invoking the historic natural alliance of the insurance industry and business — the most common source of insurance coverage for Utahns and all Americans is workplace-endorsed medical plans — options for fixing the numerous gaps in health-care access, quality and affordability were on the lunch menu at the Salt Lake Chamber offices.

"Health-system reform is our top priority," Lane Beattie, president and CEO of the chamber said after the meeting. "By employing private market principles and expanding accountability at all levels of the health system we can contain costs and improve quality of life."

Business owners nationwide share Beattie's attitude, which the past year has taken on a sense of urgency as startling numbers of companies have stopped offering medical benefits to workers because they can no longer afford to pay the insurance premiums.

Utah leads the nation in the percentage of businesses who have stopped offering plans. A survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the California-based health-care research, policy and practice nonprofit, shows that the number of Utah businesses offering health-insurance plans to workers has dropped by 10 percent the past eight years — to 60 percent from 70 percent in 2000.

Business representatives said premiums are eating them alive. In 2006, the employer-paid portion of health insurance for a Utah family was $10,975 — twice the rate of household income increases that year, twice the rate of inflation and double the cost of premiums paid by businesses in 2000.

Even though 90 percent of companies here with 50 or more employees still provide coverage, only 32 percent of firms with fewer than 50 employees are providing insurance plans for employees.

"Just a few of the numbers swirling around the health-care issue show pretty clearly that something needs to be done now," Karen Ignagni, president and CEO of America's Health Insurance Plans, said in a meeting Wednesday with the Deseret News editorial board. "Affordable coverage for small businesses must be at the center of health-care reform," she said, noting that she had promised both business and elected leaders earlier in the day that she would follow up next week with concrete options for "workable health-care reform."

The health insurance industry's Campaign for an American Solution is serious and actively engaged in designing practical changes "that will not only make coverage more affordable for small businesses, but also make it easier for their employees to accept coverage when it is offered."

Tailoring plans that match benefits needed by employees of small companies is critical to the viability of both health care and business, she said.

Among the six options mentioned at the roundtable was a health-care tax credit for working families, an idea being endorsed by a special legislative task force assigned to develop fundamental changes to the state health-care system by the end of the year.

The tax credit would help employees who forgo coverage at work because they can't afford it and would provide financial support enough to allow businesses to re-offer plans or prompt companies who never have to buy coverage for their workers.

Another critical element that must be addressed in the coming new health-care era is portability, Ignagni said. More than a special tax account set up especially for medical services offered now, workers should have "real portability" of coverage with a new tax-free account that can be used to purchase any type of health-care coverage.

The idea is as complicated as any of the myriad issues facing health-care reform, she said. "All levels of private and public companies and agencies — local, state and federal government stakeholders — would have to be involved. But workers should be able to keep their coverage when they are between jobs."

Workers who can't afford to continue to carry the full premium costs when changing employment often drop coverage altogether. If someone goes without coverage between jobs, most private insurance plans require a waiting period and premium payments for three to six months before insurance will cover medical care.

Small business owners in Utah have repeatedly said that if they were able to trim some of the required benefits to fit their businesses, they could afford to offer coverage and perhaps reduce the lag time.

Ignagni said several benefits are mandated by state and federal government regulation, but that industry leaders have heard the same concern voiced all over the country and are working to make plans as flexible as possible.

Ignagni said insurers also endorse starting a new Federal Performance Grant to help states expand access to coverage to the 340,000 Utahns who are among the 45 million uninsured Americans.

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