Guest Editorial |

Guest Editorial

by Deborah S. Bayle President and CEO, United Way of Salt Lake

I recently read that the number of adults without health insurance jumped by 2 million from 2005 to 2006, totaling 43.6 million individuals in the United States, according to the latest estimates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Clearly, if the lack of affordable healthcare were a disease, it would be an epidemic!

In Utah, the number of uninsured and underinsured individuals is also climbing. There are more than 300,000 low-income uninsured individuals in the state, and the number is growing. What’s more, in 2005, 12.3 percent of all Utah children under 18 were uninsured, despite funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

Common misconception

Utah has some of the best healthcare providers in the country, yet we have a growing population of residents who can’t afford that care. There is a common misconception that some kind of government healthcare or aid is available for the unemployed or poor, but that’s not completely true. Yes, there are aid programs available, but the application process is long and cumbersome, and many who qualify never finish the required paperwork. And if you are a low-income male between the ages of 18 and 64, you are pretty much on your own. Government aid programs weren’t designed to meet the needs of this growing class of citizens.

Decreasing benefits

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While the state is enjoying record low unemployment rates, rising health insurance costs have caused many small businesses to drop coverage or turn to high deductible health benefit packages, and stopped many people from buying healthcare insurance privately. According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Utah ranked 31st of the states with 36 percent of smaller firms (less than 50 employees) offering health coverage. For firms with 50 or more employees, Utah ranked last nationally, with less than 89 percent of larger firms offering coverage. The proportion of firms offering health insurance coverage to employees declines as firm size decreases. For all categories of firm size, the percent of Utah firms offering coverage lags behind the national average.

Rising premiums

From 1996 to 2004, the average health insurance premium for a family of four in Utah increased from $5,916 to $8,654 (adjusted for inflation to 2004 dollars). This represents a 46 percent increase in the premium amount over eight years, according to information from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

The Utah Health Data Committee and the Utah Department of Health just this month released a new report, Challenges in Utah’s Health Care, which notes that although Utah boasts exceptional healthcare quality, the state is facing negative trends in the access to health care. Among other things, the rising number of uninsured individuals has led to an increase in the number of uninsured who seek care through the emergency room.

United Way of Salt Lake’s 2007 Community Assessment ranked "Lack of Affordable Healthcare" as the top problem among its list of 17 priority problems. We recognize there are no quick fixes or short-term solutions to the lack of affordable healthcare. Nonetheless, it is a problem that must be addressed and we are committed serving as a convener and facilitator in the community-wide effort to find practical solutions. We must make affordable healthcare available to all Utah residents.