Skyrocketing insurance costs spark regional effort

Randy Wyrick
Vail Daily
With the new year, health insurance rates in Colorado are up as much as 26 percent for individuals. If you were a member of a low cost health insurance co-op, you could be dealing with a 50 percent increase.
Special to the Daily |

When health insurance prices soared by as much as 50 percent for some individuals in Colorado’s high country, the outcry got the attention of the resort region’s elected officials.

A coalition of county commissioners and state lawmakers from Garfield, Eagle, Summit and Pitkin counties will introduce legislation to try to get a handle on skyrocketing health insurance costs.

While the legislation is still being hammered out, it could require some form of pricing transparency, making it easier to do apples-to-apples cost comparisons, said Dan Gibbs, the Summit County commissioner who, along with Eagle County Commissioners Jill Ryan, Kathy Chandler Henry and Jeanne McQueeney, is driving the effort.

Adding transparency measures is key to any effort to address high prices, Gibbs said.

“People can debate health care all they want. But at the end of the day competition is good,” Gibbs said.

State Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush represents Eagle and Routt counties in Colorado’s House of Representatives. She co-sponsored a 2014 bill to do exactly that.

The bill grew out of her own frustration, she said, after she called around and couldn’t get a straight answer about prices for different medical procedures.

“It becomes impossible to make intelligent decisions about costs if people don’t know what those costs are,” said Mitsch Bush. “If you can do it with your car, why can’t you do it with your health care?”

When Colorado’s health insurance exchange opened on Nov. 1, 2015, Mitsch Bush clicked on it and punched in three ZIP codes: Edwards, Steamboat Springs and Denver. If she lived in Denver, she’d have all kinds of choices, she said.

“The cheapest one in our counties was far more expensive that anything in Denver,” she said.

During a town hall meeting in the Roaring Fork Valley, state Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Vail Democrat, asked the 120 people in the room to raise their hands if their health insurance costs went up 30 percent or more. Every hand went up, Donovan said.

“This has spread to the rest of the Western Slope, as well,” Donovan said. “It’s not just the ‘rich’ ski counties being hit with this.”

Wages are lower in the region, and the cost of everything is higher, Mitsch Bush said.

“It’s already very expensive to live in the resort communities,” Gibbs said. “I know people personally who are deciding whether to pay their rent and child care or buy health insurance.”

Commissioners across the four resort counties will create a bullet list, and state lawmakers will write the actual legislation.

Any legislation will probably start in the Colorado House of Representatives. Rep. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, and Rep. Millie Hamner from Summit County will likely sponsor the legislation, they said during Monday’s conference call.

“I don’t think we should give up on that statewide bill,” Rankin said.

Some of our higher health insurance costs stem from higher prices and some from demographics. We’re older in the resort region, we use more medical services and we use them more often, according to a report by Colorado’s Department of Regulatory Agencies’ Division of Insurance.

We also often travel to less expensive areas when we need health care.

Data says 64.3 percent of our health-care dollars were spent with providers within the resort region. By contrast, 30.1 percent of our region’s health-care dollars were spent in Denver.

In Summit County, 67 percent head to Denver for their medical procedures, Gibbs said.

Summit County even asked to be included in the Denver area. That probably won’t happen, Gibbs said.

If you live almost anywhere in western Colorado and aren’t covered by employer or other group insurance, you’ll pay an average of 26 percent more for health insurance this year. If you were a member of one of the low-cost health insurance co-ops, you’re insurance costs could be up as much as 50 percent. Those co-ops were forced out of business by state regulators, who said they didn’t have enough cash on hand.