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Health care a priority for legislators

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Utah lawmakers decided Wednesday to place health-care reform at the top of their study agenda between now and the 2008 legislative session — even as one legislator questioned whether government can really "do diddly" about systemic problems.

The comment, from Rep. John Dougall, R-American Fork, came in response to a recommendation from the Utah Insurance Department that lawmakers create a task force to examine the rising costs of health care.

According to the department's 2006 market report, comprehensive health-insurance premiums in Utah have risen nearly 70 percent since 1999, an increase of about 9 percent each year. In that same time, the number of Utah residents with comprehensive coverage has declined by 13 percent.

"Do you really think a government task force can do diddly about this?" Dougall asked.

A two-year task force charged with studying Utah's privately owned health-care market concluded last fall without making any recommendations about how to better the system.

Insurance Department Commissioner Kent Michie was a little more optimistic, noting that health-care reform is going to be a hot topic in Congress and during the upcoming presidential election.

"There are many people who believe that health-care reform is the No. 1 domestic policy issue facing the nation," Michie said.

Utah lawmakers should study the issue carefully, he suggested, "so you'd be in a position to react intelligently when it comes up."

The Health and Human Services Interim Committee placed a broad study of health-care reform high on its agenda for the next six months. The decision dovetailed with a Wednesday request from Dr. David Sundwall, executive director of the Utah Department of Health, to explore issues facing Utah's uninsured population.

According to health-department figures, the state's current uninsured rate is 11.9 percent, or more than 300,000 citizens. Sundwall asked lawmakers to look particularly at reducing the number of uninsured children and young adults, perhaps through required health-insurance coverage for all full-time college students in the state.

E-mail: awelling@desnews.com