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Financial assistance available to patients with mounting medical bills

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SALT LAKE CITY — Health insurance proves its worth in times of need, but some people will choose to face the odds and not pay until it is too late.

Not budgeting for insurance, however, can "take a person from where they're flying high and bring them back to square one," said George Knudsen, an eligibility counselor with Intermountain Healthcare's financial assistance programs. Medical emergencies and unexpected health care costs, he said, "can bankrupt a person."

"It is my job to keep you afloat, help find ways to forgive your bills and make things more manageable," Knudsen said.

Knudsen and Alberto Calderon, who is also a financial assistance specialist with Intermountain, will be available to answer questions from the public during the Deseret News/Intermountain Healthcare Health Hotline from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday. Anyone interested may call 800-925-8177 during that time or post a question at www.Facebook.com/DeseretNews.

Part of Intermountain's mission, according to the organization, is to "provide medically necessary and generally available health care to the communities we serve, regardless of a patient's ability to pay."

Financial assistance is a major player for the nonprofit system, which is able to claim the amount of donated services on its taxes.

Calderon said he's seen a lot of desperate people, and he and Knudsen work with patients from different backgrounds to find a way to make ends meet.

"We'd rather have them apply for financial assistance than go to collections," Calderon said. "It's better for them and it's better for us."

While Medicaid is an option for some patients without insurance, he said other options for affordable insurance may become available to Utahns at the beginning of next year. New portions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act are expected to take effect Jan. 1, including a provision that would create a health care plan available for purchase by the general public.

Also, when hospitalization isn't entirely necessary, Calderon said the system offers low-cost and free community clinic services to those who qualify. More than 235,000 patients were supported through those clinics in 2012, according to the latest annual report from the nonprofit.

"Most people don't know what resources are available to them," he said, adding that some individuals avoid hospitals because of the "horror stories" they've heard regarding resulting bankruptcies from compiling medical bills.

Bills of people who die during hospitalization or shortly afterward are often forgiven by Intermountain, depending on the ability of the person's family to pay. The organization wrote off more than $252 million in charity care last year.

"There is assistance out there, and there are people who want to help," Calderon said.

Email: wleonard@deseretnews.com

Twitter: wendyleonards