Summit County commissioners slam plan to raise state’s health rates | VailDaily.com

Summit County commissioners slam plan to raise state’s health rates

Kevin Fixler
kfixler@summitdaily.com

BRECKENRIDGE — Summit County government is again acting as a torchbearer for the state's other mountain communities on the issue of health care costs in the area.

The Board of County Commissioners recently sent a letter to Marguerite Salazar, commissioner of the state's Division of Insurance, to voice concerns over the proposed premium hikes for 2017. A release in early June stated that those who obtain plans on the individual marketplace can likely expect average annual increases of at least 35 percent on already elevated premiums.

"This is untenable for our mountain population, which is already burdened with some of the highest health insurance rates in the nation," read the July 6 document. "We strongly urge you to devote the necessary resources to diligently scrutinize insurance companies' proposals to verify whether these exorbitant rates are justified."

While the Division of Insurance does not set insurance premiums, it does review insurance providers' requested rates to ensure they meet all state and federal guidelines and are also warranted. The county's three commissioners, Thomas Davidson, Karn Stiegelmeier and Dan Gibbs, signed the letter.

Of late, Gibbs has become a spokesman for the resort region regarding health care. During the most recent legislative session, the former state senator and representative used his sway at the Capitol to help guide a bill that will examine overall costs through the General Assembly. That proposed law, HB 16-1336, landed on Gov. John Hickenlooper's desk and received his signature at a mid-May event in Frisco. Results of the study are due on Aug. 1.

On Monday, Gibbs was in Denver to testify and read the commissioners' letter at a Colorado Commission on Affordable Health Care meeting. He also plans to meet with Salazar in the coming week to discuss the preliminary data from the study.

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"My message is urgency," Gibbs told the Summit Daily. "Let's get some data that we need, so that we have as much information as possible to know what the next steps could be. The status quo is just not working for our community. It's not working for a lot of Coloradans, and so what legislative or administrative actions can we realistically move forward ASAP? Let's get moving on this."

Forced to leave

Longtime Summit County resident Brianne Snow couldn't agree more. The homeowner in Silverthorne and grant writer for the Family & Intercultural Resource Center is worried that if relief doesn't arrive soon in the way of reduced health care costs, her family will be forced to exit the community in which they work and love.

"It's really scary to think that we may have to leave in order to afford to insure our family," she said. "I can't let our family go into poverty over this. It's a reality that we don't necessarily want to face. We just said we'll wait and see what happens."

The Family & Intercultural Resource Center provides free health-care enrollment counseling as part of myriad assistance programs for local families. And, as an employer, the nonprofit provides insurance to its workers, but not to their partners or dependents; so Snow and her husband ante up for health care for him and their 2-year-old daughter. That's on top of the cost of a mortgage and childcare. But because of her role at the Silverthorne-based organization, Snow caught early rumblings of dramatic premium increases coming down the pike.

"I had a pit in my stomach when I heard," she said. "Obviously for our community it's really sad, but for me personally, I know what a struggle it is to pay our insurance every month. It was kind of devastating news."

Growing into a movement

Snow and her family provide one example of countless others that exist in Summit, and a primary reason why Gibbs says he continues to go to bat on their behalf. But given the bad news for the estimated 450,000 Coloradans who receive their health insurance through the state exchange, he theorizes the unrest is growing into a movement.

On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., Gibbs met with some of Colorado's U.S. senators and representatives. He shared with them stories similar to that of the Snow family, as well as the news of almost certain insurance rate expansion next year.

"You're going to hear from constituents," Gibbs told these members of Congress. "The rate increases are not just isolated to the mountain communities anymore. From my perspective, that's almost a good thing because it's not just us; it's a statewide issue. So that's just more friends on our side, frankly."

With the particulars of the health study coming in fewer than three weeks, there's potential for discovering ways to realize discounts on insurance premiums in future years. In the meantime, the 2017 rates will be locked in and announced no later than early October, and residents throughout the mountain region like the Snows are bracing for the worst. Summit's commissioners, including Gibbs, are trying to stay optimistic even if they remain dissatisfied with the state's current health care landscape.

"The more I understand health care," said Gibbs, "the more I feel like there needs to be louder, bigger voices for average citizens that are trying to get health insurance. I still think that there aren't enough consumer protection organizations. Our hope is that more communities … so that it's kind of this good coalition, will take a look at our letter and send their own."