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Any hope on medical bills?

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A perfect candidate for Medicaid insurance was urged to get her application in as soon as possible, she was told when she called the Deseret News/Intermountain Health Care Health Hotline.

The 46-year-old out-of-work mother had a double mastectomy a few years ago because of breast cancer, and she also had cervical cancer. Yet, she hasn't been to the doctor for a checkup in three years because she can't afford the bill.

"I made her promise me she would go get screened," said Elizabeth Heath, manager of Salt Lake eligibility services for the Utah Department of Health.

Heath and Terry Lange, director of reimbursement for IHC's Utah Valley hospitals, were overwhelmed with callers Saturday trying to find out the best way to access medical care without insurance. More than half the calls came from Ogden. Some callers had been recently laid off; many said they had lost their jobs at Autoliv, an air-bag maker that cut some 860 jobs in 2001.

For many of these, the outlook was grim. Because they met neither age nor disability requirements for many state and federal medical assistance programs, the only type of insurance they have a chance of qualifying for is the Utah Medical Assistance Program, which provides for emergency services only. Though former workers do have an option in COBRA, which provides insurance coverage for 12 to 36 months after being laid off, the fees are much higher and callers said they couldn't pay.

Other calls from across the state showed many don't know about some of the options open to them, Heath and Lange agreed.

"I think the unemployment rate's up in the state," Heath said. "The highest number was those not knowing Medicaid as an option; I think these are new people who are new to thinking about public programs."

Those who aren't eligible for a program like Medicaid should take advantage of the IHC-funded Community Health Centers, which charge on a sliding fee scale, Heath said.

Heath and Lange also referred many callers who needed help in the job search to the Department of Workforce Services; a few calling about dental care were told to call the Utah Dental Association. As for callers suffering from disabilities, including one 57-year-old woman who is nearly blind from cataracts, Lange said he told them to look into disability insurance through Medicaid, which largely serves those in low-income families, pregnant women, children, the elderly and the disabled.

"The problem is there isn't enough money in the Medicaid program and it will eat as much as you feed it," he said.

Lange said no matter what, though, the "main thing is to get in there and try" to apply for something, because eligibility workers will look into all possibilities.

E-mail: lwhite@desnews.com