Frustration widespread at health insurance forum in Basalt | AspenTimes.com

Frustration widespread at health insurance forum in Basalt

A panel featuring State Sen. Kerry Donovan, center, listens Thursday night as Vince Plymell, second from right, and Tom Abel of the Colorado Division of Insurance talk about health care options and premium prices. About 150 people attended the forum in Basalt.

Residents of Roaring Fork Valley's three counties expressed their frustrations to state officials Thursday night in Basalt over the soaring costs and declining options for health care coverage.

More than 150 people from Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties attended the Health Care Forum organized by the Basalt Chamber of Commerce. Speakers voiced frustration to officials from the Colorado Division of Insurance that residents of the mountain region are paying some of the highest insurance premium rates in the nation.

Tom Abel, a Division of Insurance supervisor, said even with the state's closure of Colorado HealthOp last month, residents in the Roaring Fork Valley still have several options for health care coverage. He said premiums were going up about 10 percent this year on average for Colorado residents.

But speakers painted a different picture of what consumers are experiencing in the marketplace.

"We're down to basically two choices," said Peter Martin, owner of an insurance agency in the valley. Anthem and Rocky Mountain HMO are the realistic choices, he said. Other carriers either don't offer plans that exempt customers from penalties under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, or there aren't doctors available in the area that accept those plans.

Other speakers disputed the assertion that the average increase for health care coverage is only 10 percent.

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Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt said her coverage is increasing from $600 to $900 per month for 2016, even with a $6,000 deductible.

"Many of us feel we are alone in this mess," she said.

Whitsitt roused a cheer from the crowd when she said the state insurance division should force insurance companies to cover the entire state rather than just focus on the high-population centers.

Other speakers said the state needs to further reform geographic rating areas, which influence insurance premiums. When Obamacare first came out, Pitkin, Eagle, Garfield and Summit counties were lumped together but isolated from other rural areas of Colorado. The geographic areas were redrawn in spring 2014, and that provided some relief to premiums for valley residents.

Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said at Thursday's forum that the redrawing placed about 400,000 residents in the rural region. However, many residents are covered by government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid while others are covered by employers' plans. The folks who are left over are those scrambling for affordable coverage and looking at increases in premiums of 26 percent this year over last year, he said.

"It's the individuals that are really getting hammered," Jankovsky said.

Garfield County wants to take a crack at further reforms to the geographic rating areas. Jankovsky said the rural areas of Colorado are being penalized because the state assumes health care costs are higher in rural areas than in the more competitive urban areas of the state. He said Garfield County has tried to acquire information that shows medical expenses, utilization and where people in rural areas are getting their medical care so that they can gauge whether costs are truly higher.

Garfield County has had trouble acquiring that data, he said, and it needs to team up with other rural counties. Eagle County Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney also was at the meeting and pledged cooperation. No one from Pitkin County attended.

Several members in the audience said the entire state should be considered one area so that carriers couldn't cherry pick where to offer coverage. Abel countered that would reduce carrier options for other parts of the state. The state might end up with only two or three carriers, he said.

"Who cares?" some audience members retorted, noting the mountain areas already have only two carriers.

"It depends on what part of the state you live in whether it matters or not," Abel said.

The forum produced no immediate relief. People looking for coverage were urged to shop for options through Connect For Health Colorado, which was established by the state when the Affordable Care Act was approved.

In the longer term, relief will have to come through the state, such as through reforms to the geographic rating areas. State Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Vail Democrat who represents Aspen, said she will continue to seek reforms.

"In the high country of Colorado, we're continuing to see challenges," she said.

scondon@aspentimes.com

IF YOU NEED HEALTH INSURANCE

The Basalt Chamber of Commerce and Connect For Health Colorado have organized an event to connect individuals with insurance brokers.

When: Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Where: Eagle County office building adjacent to Crown Mountain Park

What: Six insurance brokers will be available to enroll individuals

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