Utahns hit by health care 'triple whammy'

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Utahns hit by health care 'triple whammy'


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Utahns hit by health care 'triple whammy'
By Lisa Rosetta
The Salt Lake Tribune
Salt Lake Tribune
HEALTH INSURANCE PREMIUMS are costing Utah families more than ever - and are increasing far faster than Utahns' median earnings. Advocates worry a cycle of paying more for less coverage will doom families in this faltering economy. "A bad situation is clearly growing worse," said Ron Pollock, of Families USA. Details, A4
    Health insurance premiums are tearing a bigger bite out of Utah families' budgets than ever before.
    A new report by Families USA shows that, over the past eight years, health insurance premiums rose by 84.7 percent in the state - 4.9 times faster than Utahns' median earnings.
    Premiums for employment-based health insurance, the report says, rose for both individuals and families between 2000 and 2007. Individuals saw their average cost jump from $2,585 to $4,084, and families, from $6,305 to $11,644. Those numbers include both the employer and worker share of the premiums.
    At the same time, however, Utahns' median earnings only grew from $21,497 to $25,205 - a 17.2 percent bump.
    "With findings like these and a likely recession looming on the horizon, it's painful to note that the political will to tackle health system reforms does not yet exist at the Utah Legislature," said Judi Hilman, executive director of the Utah Health Policy Project.
    While the state's Health System Reform Task Force has been convening for months to map out a way to get every Utahn insured and rein in health care costs, few pieces of draft legislation have emerged.
    Though the rate at which Utahns' premiums grew versus their earnings was below the national average, it was still worse than about half of all the states. In Michigan, where the state economy is in the doldrums, premiums rose 17.1 times faster than earnings; in contrast, Nevada's premiums increased only 2.5 times faster than earnings.
    Ron Pollock, executive director of Families USA - a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization aimed at getting all Americans affordable health care - said workers are now facing what he calls "a triple whammy."
    Premiums are going up. The portion paid by workers is going up faster than their employer's share. And faced with rising health care costs, employers are depressing workers' wages.
    "A bad situation is clearly growing worse," Pollock said. "If this troubling trend continues, the health care affordability crisis will become worse."
    A growing number of people are losing the option of even having employer-sponsored plans. Unable to afford the higher costs, companies are dropping their coverage. In the same eight-year period, the percentage of Americans getting health insurance through their jobs dropped to 59.3 percent from 64.2 percent.
    Ali Sabbah, owner of the Mazza Middle Eastern Cafe in Salt Lake City, is on the hunt for an affordable insurance policy for his 60 employees. But the inexpensive ones offer only bare-bones benefits and the robust ones are far too costly.
    "I can't find anything that is worth buying," said Sabbah, who has two restaurants.
    Sabbah, who gets his health insurance through his wife's employer, wishes the state or federal government would step in to help small business owners cover their employees.
    "It would have been nice to offer them something because it really contributes to the stability of the work environment, less turnover - people have a better reason to stay," he said. "But unfortunately that's not the case."
    In the meantime, the ranks of the uninsured have swelled. Nationally, 7.3 million more people are without health insurance since 2000, and in Utah, 88,100. The Utah number is the increase in uninsured since 2001, the earliest year for which the Utah Department of Health has data in this decade.
    "To expect families . . . to either drop their coverage or have to reduce their benefits, and pay more out-of-pocket expenses, we're basically dooming those families to failure in these economically hard times," Hilman said.
    Not all companies are dropping coverage, the report says. But many are attempting to lower their costs by providing fewer benefits with higher deductibles and copayments.
    As this trend continues, the report says, a growing number of Utah families will struggle to pay for - and keep - their health insurance.
    An estimated 57 million Americans will spend more than 10 percent of their pre-tax income on health care costs in 2008, putting them at high risk for financial problems, the report says. Already more than one-quarter of insured Americans say they're having problems with their medical bills or are paying off medical debt.
    Families USA based its report on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Department of Labor and the Department of Health and Human Services. The report, Premiums Versus Paychecks: A Growing Burden for Utah's Workers, can be found online at familiesusa.org.
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