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In Utah, it’s possible to dodge high health costs — if you work for a top employer

Intermountain Health's Utah Valley Hospital in Provo, Utah, March 29, 2024.
Tilda Wilson
Intermountain Health's Utah Valley Hospital in Provo, Utah, March 29, 2024.

In March, USA Today named Utah the most affordable state in the country. It cited the state’s high median income, “coupled with the nation’s lowest health care spending,” as the largest contributing factors.

The article compared per capita health care costs to the median income in each state. While Gov. Spencer Cox celebrated the finding on social media, others expressed skepticism. For Utahns with some of the state’s biggest employers, though, the idea that Utah has low health care costs rings true.

Max Sergeev works at the University of Utah, and said “the premiums are fairly low.” His wife has cancer, and she’s gotten good care without needing to pay much out of pocket.

“Before I worked for the university, like at my other jobs, I just had really crap insurance,” Sergeev said. “The high deductibles hike up payments and in that case, the health care was a problem.”

He suspects health care costs are lower for many in Utah because higher education and health care – which often offer better insurance – are such large industries. In the case of Sergeev’s employer, it’s both a university and its own health system. Of the state’s top 10 employers for 2022, only two — Walmart and Smith’s — are outside of the health care, education and government trifecta.

Still, he’s frustrated with how long it takes to see a doctor.

“If I just need a routine checkup I have to plan for two months ahead.”

It’s a different story for Carlie Hahn.

Hahn has lived in Utah her whole life. She also deals with severe medical problems.

Recently things took a turn for the worse when she was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis and started getting severe hemiplegic migraines. She wasn’t able to work and lost her job because of that. This also meant she had to change insurance plans.

Hahn went to the hospital before the end of the fiscal year, and right after it. Then she was hospitalized again after getting her new insurance. As a result, she had to pay her $7,500 deductible three times in one year.

In the past two years, Hahn went from “having two incomes and basically no debt to having a whole bunch of medical debt and one income.” Even though she’s unable to work, Hahn has not qualified for disability payments.

“They just kept saying there was no objective evidence I was sick, only subjective complaints,” she explained. “But my neurologist was so frustrated because there’s no objective diagnostic tests for chronic migraines.”

“I even sent them videos of me having my kind of migraines, like, the entire right side of my face gets paralyzed and droops down. You can hear it happening and see it.”

Eventually, the arguments got too complicated to navigate while dealing with her medical needs. So she sought out grants and financial aid, and found other ways to help pay for her medical bills.

“Instead of being able to plan for some vacations and things now it's like, ‘OK, well, those are going to take a back burner.’”

Utah made significant gains in overall coverage in the last decade, but 10.2% of Utahns remain uninsured, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. When the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute looked at the state’s coverage, 59.3% of Utahns got health care from an employer in 2021. Another 11% were insured through Medicaid, and 10.2% were insured through Medicare.

Tilda is KUER’s growth, wealth and poverty reporter in the Central Utah bureau based out of Provo.
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