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Cost of insurance skyrockets

Janet Urquhart

If the effort to create an affordable health plan for the Roaring Fork Valley is ever successful, the first claims may be filed by employers who hurt themselves scrambling to sign up.

Insurance costs have long been a difficult pill to swallow, but some employers are choking on the latest hikes in health care premiums.

The Aspen School District’s premiums went up 50 percent this year, according to Joe Tarbet, finance director.

The city of Aspen, which offers two plans, saw the costs of both of them rise 25 to 30 percent. Ironically, the increases were something of a nice surprise, said Tabatha Miller, finance director.

“I was actually surprised ours was only 25 to 30 percent. I had heard horror stories about 50 to 60 percent,” she said.

The Aspen Chamber Resort Association’s health insurance costs jumped 51 percent, said president Christine Nolen. And that comes on top of a 34 percent hike last year.

The huge increases have left employers struggling with how best to cope and yet continue to offer a benefit package that will retain employees in the resort’s tight labor market, Nolen said.

“This is not a good time to penalize our employees for working for us,” she said.

Nonetheless, few employers are able to eat the increases. They are changing providers, upping deductibles and increasing the sums employees pay toward their premiums.

“I think employers are trying just about everything they can,” Nolen said.

For chamber members, the deductible on an individual plan, for example, will rise from $300 to $500.

At the Aspen Skiing Co., where costs are up 20 percent this year and have more than doubled in the past five years, employees who go to the doctor more will pay more, said Jim Laing, vice president of human resources.

The school district simply cut back on what it offers in the way of insurance, said Tarbet.

“We eliminated dental and we eliminated vision and kept the health insurance,” he said. “We kept the health plan at the expense of the other two.”

In addition, the district is in the process of hiring a consultant to explore the health insurance issue in general, Tarbet said. “We are literally going to look into every single avenue we can think of.”

The city is exploring its options, as well.

“Most likely, we will not renew with the plans we’ve had in place for the last couple of years,” Miller said. “To keep them, we would have to raise the fees to employees, and we don’t really want to do that. We’re going to try to keep the cost reasonable to both the city and city employees.”

The city may consider joining the County Health Pool, a group of Colorado counties and municipalities that have banded together for insurance purposes.

Pitkin County is a member of the pool and is anticipating just an 8-percent hike in insurance costs, according to Amy Barwick, human resources director. Part of that increase will be passed on to employees, she said.

In the end, though, employers may find their options limited.

“There’s not a bunch of companies that will bid on us here,” said the school district’s Tarbet. “I don’t think anybody knows why.”

Real relief may have to come via changes in state regulations, said the chamber’s Nolen, noting that rising health care costs are a statewide problem.

The Colorado Congress of Chamber Executives has health care high on its legislative agenda, though its lobbying efforts are not likely to produce relief for employers in the near future, Nolen conceded.

“We’re probably not looking at dramatic short-term solutions, but we’re trying to chart a course to make things better in the future,” she said.


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