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It was a two-second sound bite in an hour-long speech.

But Gov. Gary Herbert's suggestion to open Utah's health insurance marketplace, Avenue H, to state employees caused quite a stir.

"Our phones have been ringing off the hook," said Audrey Wood, executive director of the Utah Public Employees' Association (UPEA), which issued a statement on Thursday opposing the move.

"UPEA looks forward to discussing the proposal with Governor Herbert but will remain opposed until further information is available," reads an email alert to union members.

The governor is merely exploring giving employees the option of shopping for coverage on its insurance portal — not making it mandatory, clarified a spokesman on Thursday.

And it wouldn't happen for three to four years.

But state employees like their health benefits and aren't keen on hints at changing them.

The nonprofit Public Employee Health Plan is more efficient than most private insurers, boasting 4 percent overhead, said Wood. "Would they put PEHP on the exchange as an option? Would there be broker fees, or other fees, to pay?"

Avenue H lets employees buy coverage with set contributions from their employer. This gives employees greater choice and helps employers predict and control their costs.

An employer — in this case, the state — could, for example, tie its contributions to inflation in order to keep costs in check.

But growth in health spending has outpaced inflation for years, which means those costs could be shifted to employees, fears Wood.

PEHP isn't immune to inflation. Deciding how to price and tailor benefits is something employees and lawmakers grapple with each year.

"But it's healthy to have those discussions in the open with everyone, the Legislature, employees and the state," said Wood. "I appreciate [the governor's] trying to be innovative. We just need to understand the details."

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