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Utah Legislature: House kills bill on insurance for inmates

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that would force health insurance firms to pay the health care costs of inmates — if the firms were getting premiums from the inmate or his family — failed in the House Tuesday.

HB22 sponsoring Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, said he did not know why "big insurance firms" could refuse to pay for inmate health care just because the patient was in the state prison or jail.

But most House members voted against the bill, saying state taxpayers should pick up the cost, even if the inmate is insured.

Opponents said during debate that the bill painted insurers as bad guys, when in fact the bad guys are the ones who broke laws that got them arrested and incarcerated. They also argued that the bill was anti-free market and smacked of government takeover of a private enterprise.

Although the bill exempted insurers from covering wounds that were the result of fighting in jail or were self-inflicted, the majority of House members apparently were swayed by arguments that the bill amounted to a paradigm shift in the state's legal obligation to house, feed and see to the medical needs of all Utahns in the custody of county and state corrections agencies.

In the 2008 election, the insurance industry gave $313,311 to state-level candidates (including the Legislature, governor and attorney general), according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Insurance companies gave the second-most of any industry that year, outdistanced only by the securities and investment industry, which gave $614,207, according to the institute.

And big insurance companies lose few political fights in the Utah Legislature.

The bill would save county jails more money than the state, with only a handful of felons in the state prison having outside health insurance. But a number of county jail inmates, who may be sentenced for several months up to a year, have insurance while incarcerated, Ray said.

"Taxpayers are getting hammered, and it's time for insurance companies to step up and pay for what they've contracted for," said Ray just before his bill was voted down on a 30-44 vote.

Contributing: Lee Davidson