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Utah advocates say federal health insurance website running smoother in 2nd year of operation

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WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah — Two Utah men who benefited from the federal health care law said Tuesday that while the law has been politically divisive, it has saved their lives by allowing them to get affordable insurance.

James Phillips of Midvale said he lost his job and came down with an illness several years ago that left him unable to find work and health insurance that cost less than $750 a month.

"No one would touch me unless I wanted to pay an outrageous amount of money," Phillips told The Associated Press at a health care conference on Tuesday. The conference in West Valley City was hosted by the Utah Health Policy Project, a nonprofit that advocates for affordable health care.

Advocates and consumers at the conference discussed the federally-run online marketplace, which has just opened for a sophomore enrollment season.

During the website's first year, Phillips said he was able to find insurance for $150 a month as insurers could no longer penalize him for his medical condition.

The Affordable Care Act and its online marketplace are not perfect, Phillips said, noting that he's unsure if and how he should re-enroll this year.

"Does it help everybody? Probably not," Phillips told conference attendees. "But prior to the ACA, there was nothing out there."

Rusty Carroll, a Taylorsville resident, said that despite being a diabetic, he went without health coverage or a doctor's care after losing his job in 2011. Insurance would have cost him $1,400 a month until the online marketplace launched, with federal help to pay his costs. Carroll was able to sign up for insurance that cost $14 a month.

"Is the ACA the best? No. It needs improvement? Yes. So let's tweak it," Carroll said. "But for people like me and James, in my opinion, it's saving our lives."

Utah is one of 37 states where the federal government is running the online marketplace, a signature component of the health care law.

The website had an inauspicious launch in October 2013, when glitches and crashes hindered consumers who tried to shop for and enroll in plans.

Officials have fixed many of the problems, and, this year, the retooled website offers a more user-friendly shopping experience, said Jason Stevenson, a director with the Utah Health Policy Project.

Opponents of the law say that while the website appears to be running smoother, the law has been disruptive and created much uncertainty for insurers, consumers and businesses.

One of those critics, Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, is still wrestling with another of the law's major components_an offer of federal help to states that expand their Medicaid programs. The federal government has offered to help pay most of the cost if states allow more people to be eligible for the state-federal program.

Herbert has instead proposed using federal money to enroll more than 100,000 poor Utah residents on private health care programs. The governor has closed in on a deal with the Obama administration, but he still needs Utah's GOP-controlled Legislature to sign on to it.

Herbert is set to lay out the plan's details to lawmakers on Thursday.

Ahead of that, Utah's Republican lieutenant governor, Spencer Cox, pitched the outlines of the plan Tuesday afternoon at the health care conference.

Cox said that while someone can be opposed to the health care law, something must be done to help the thousands of Utah residents who, because of a flaw in the law, are ineligible for Medicaid or need help paying for private insurance.

"Whether you love the ACA or think it's the spawn of Satan," Cox said, "You have to agree that this is an unfair and untenable situation."

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