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where there's smoke: A building under construction next to the Logan Police Station caught fire from a welder's spark. Damage was estimated at $50,000. / Photo by Gideon Oakes

Today's word on journalism

August 27, 2008

On protests at political conventions:

"The citizens of Denver and St. Paul, and Americans everywhere, should hope officials in those cities already have considered both the constitutional and monetary costs of silencing voices that have a right to be heard. . . . Well-expressed or wacky. Irritating or illuminating. Respectful or raucous. There's nothing in the 45 words of the First Amendment that sets out any such qualifications or limits on protests. Time and again in our history, from women's suffrage to civil rights to tax protests, to name just some, voices first raised in the streets -- to the disgust or disappointment of some -- have led to significant, positive changes in law and American life."

--Gene Policinski, executive director, First Amendment Center, 2008

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Students' medical bill roulette targeted by cheaper insurance plan

By Ashley Schiller

May 8, 2008 | "I thought you died right then."

Weeks after 20-year-old Lara Willey fell 30 feet onto a cement slab, her date told her what he was thinking as he watched her convulse for a few moments before she stopped moving completely.

The two had been set up on a blind date. They went to a recreation center with an outdoor rock wall. Just as Willey reached the top, the pulley system was ripped out of its holding and she crashed down to the cement below.

She broke her neck, four bones in her back and both sides of her pelvis. Her left elbow was shattered and her right shoulder torn. For a while, she couldn't use either hand. Family members even had to help her scratch, her mother, Cherie Willey, said.

After nine days in the hospital, she went home in a body cast, deemed the "turtle shell," which she stayed in for two months. It took her family about four hours to bathe her in the beginning. By the end of the two months, they had it down to two.

Nine months of physical therapy followed. A year after the accident occurred, she is still recovering and doctors say she will likely experience early arthritis.

Willey, along with many fellow Utah State University students, doesn't have insurance.

The total medical bill: $150,000.

And counting.

About one-fourth of USU students are uninsured, Noell Hansen, a specialist in the Student Health and Wellness Center, said. Utah law allows single students under 25 to still be on their parents' insurance. As a result, the majority of USU uninsured students are juniors, seniors or graduate students, she said.

But not all students' parents have insurance, and there are also many uninsured married students, who lost eligibility to be on their parents' policy when they wed.

For newlywed couples such as Jon Call and his wife, both of whom were on their parents' policy before, insurance has been a challenge they have never had to deal with previously.

Because of his wife's slight spinal curvature, all the insurance companies they have investigated have rejected them. They looked into the university's insurance but it was "blazing expensive, more than rent," Call said.

However, USU insurance will be less expensive next fall. There will be a 34 percent decrease in the premium, Hansen said, taking the average $1,780 premium for a single student down to $1,165. Family policies will also go down.

The decrease is a result of a recent decision that provides that the university pays 80 percent of the premiums for graduate assistants, teaching assistants and graduate students with a fellowship or scholarship of at least $10,000, Hansen said. These students will only have to pay $242 a year for coverage.

Because so many more students will use the university's insurance, premiums for everyone will drop, Hansen said.

Current premiums are high because so few use the university insurance - only about 200 students per semester, and many of these are high-risk individuals, she said.

The new regulation has "breathed life back into [USU's] policy," Hansen said. She hopes that this will be a great enrollment year. Higher enrollment would likely result in either more benefits or lower premiums in the future, she said.

High premiums often contribute to a person or family's decision not to have insurance. Cherie Willey hasn't had insurance since May of 1990. At the time, she had five young children. Her husband owned his own business as an electrical contractor and business was slow.

"We had to decide, 'Do we send off the insurance payment or do we put food on the table?'" Willey said.

They concluded they would go off insurance until things picked up.

In July, Willey got a brain tumor.

"We said, ‘Let's just drop the insurance for a few months until we can afford it again, we're healthy,' and then BAM! That's when it all happened," Willey said.

Luckily, Medicaid paid for a lot of the treatment, she said, adding that others in the medical field and community were also very generous.

Since 1990, the family has never qualified for insurance, Willey said. Her daughter grew up without insurance, but she never had a great accident until her fall last year.

While her daughter was recovering, a hospital worker suggested the parents seek the help of Medicaid to assist their daughter pay her gigantic bills. Medicaid agreed to pay for the first two months of hospitalization and doctors with the understanding that when she gets a settlement from the accident, she will pay the organization back, Willey said.

They have not pursued legal action yet. The attorney wanted to wait a year to see how well Lara was recovering. She looks completely healthy and wears a big smile, but she is in pain everyday, Willey said. If an out of court settlement is not agreed upon, Lara will sue the company that owns the rock wall from which she fell.

Even with the help from Medicaid, the family has paid between $18,000 and $20,000 themselves. Willey expressed frustration with the expense of medical procedures.

"Competition is what has made our country great. There's not just one car dealership or one hamburger stand. There are a lot of different choices. And it seems like our choices are being controlled; there is not competition in the medical field. Doctors are not lowering their prices to get our business," she said.

Hansen said she can understand both sides of the issue. She said she wasn't sure she and her husband could afford to pay USU insurance for their family. Insuring a family costs between $5,000 and $11,000 a year, she said.

Yet Hansen has also had the experience of watching students come into her office, "put their head on my desk and cry" because they had a medical emergency and are unable to pay for it. She knows several students who have had to drop out of school because of their bills.

"You can't ever avoid becoming ill or being involved in an accident or being diagnosed with a significant illness, but you can avoid being financially devastated," she said.

College is an important time to have insurance, according to the Web site commonwealthfund.org. Some of the reasons include: 14 percent of young adults are obese, there are about 3.5 million pregnancies among young adults each year, half the HIV diagnoses are made among young adults and injury-related emergency room visits are far more common among young adults than for adults or children.

Call said his wife often worries about them not having insurance. His wife has had strep throat twice this year. Because her husband is a student, she was able to go to the Health and Wellness Center for only $40, but they want insurance, he said. They are looking, but said it‘s not easy finding an affordable company that will accept them.

Call said he wishes it were easier to deal with, like car insurance.

"Health insurance is a whole different story," he said.

"I think the whole system stinks," Willey said. "There should be a better way. I don't know the answer. If I did I would try to help our country to be able to have it. But I think that everyone should be able to have insurance."

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