Uninsured rates rise for Eagle County, surrounding areas
As costs remain high, five-county region has steepest rates of uninsured residents in state
EAGLE COUNTY — Eagle County and surrounding communities’ rate of uninsured residents rose sharply in the last two years, and is now the highest in the state, according to a report released Wednesday.
According to the biennial Colorado Health Access Survey, 14.3% of residents in Eagle, Summit, Pitkin, Grand and Garfield counties are uninsured, up from 10.2% in 2017.
In Colorado as a whole, 6.5% of residents are uninsured, a number that was unchanged from the 2017 study.
Advocates for lowering the cost of and increasing access to health care in the high country weren’t surprised by the results, but they are hopeful that new programs will bring down that number by 2021.
“It’s obviously not the direction we want to see that figure go in, but when I check in with people in the district, their story is they have to make a decision between child care and health care, or their mortgage or health care,” said state Sen. Kerry Donovan, who represents Eagle and Pitkin counties, among others, at the state Capitol. “People are making the tough decision to forgo health care.”
Various efforts at both the local and state levels are aiming to lower the cost of health care for residents of the mountain region. One is Summit County’s Peak Health Alliance, the state’s first health care purchasing collaborative. That program, in tandem with the state’s new reinsurance program, promises to reduce individual plan prices in Summit County by an average of 41.5% next year.
“High cost of premiums and high deductibles make health insurance out of reach for a big segment of our community,” said Tamara Drangstveit, executive director of Peak Health Alliance. “It’s not gotten any better, and while certainly the work of Peak has been focused on making that better for 2020, for the 2019 data I’m not surprised at all given the trends and costs.”
Jumping up the list
For the Eagle-Summit-Pitkin-Grand-Garfield region, also called the “I-70 Mountain Corridor” region, the 2019 uninsured rates were its highest since 2013, when it was 19.4%. It rose as high as 25% in 2011.
It was the first year since 2011 that the I-70 Mountain Corridor region had the highest uninsured rates in the state. Each year the study was conducted since 2013, the Northwest Region, including Jackson, Routt, Moffat and Rio Blanco counties, had the highest rate in the state.
The state is broken into 21 regions in the survey.
In 2017, Vail’s region had the fifth-highest rate of uninsured residents, behind four regions at the far corners the state — the Northwest, Southeast, Northeast and Southwest. This year, it jumped to the top of the list.
The study is conducted by the Colorado Health Institute and primarily funded by The Colorado Trust and The Colorado Health Foundation. The Colorado Health Institute conducts the study by surveying 10,000 randomly selected households.
Jeff Bontrager, director of research and evaluation for the Colorado Health Institute, said he was not yet certain why the I-70 Mountain Corridor region jumped up to the top of the list.
“It’s a great question,” he said. “It’s something we would need to look into.”
He noted that the rate of employer-sponsored health care as well as the individual market coverage dropped in the region. Employer-sponsored covered dropped from 48.8% to 46.4%; individual/other insurance dropped from 15.6% to 11.1%.
Housing and health
According to the study, 34.8% of residents in the I-70 Mountain Corridor had a surprise medical bill in the last year, which was the highest rate of any region in the state.
The study also looked at other social factors that contribute to health. One was housing; the study asked whether respondents were concerned about having stable housing within the next two months. The I-70 Mountain Corridor region had the highest rate of respondents saying “yes,” at 14.5 percent.
“Over the last few months, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about this conversation about housing and how it relates to health, both physical and mental health,” said Rep. Dylan Roberts, who represents Eagle and Routt counties in the state legislature. “I’m glad those things are starting to be talked about together.”
The I-70 Mountain Corridor region was also among the lowest for having dental insurance. According to the study, 60.5% of respondents in the region had dental insurance. The lowest region in the study had 59.1% of residents with dental coverage.
With respect to “access to care,” the I-70 Mountain Corridor region was in the middle of the pack among the state’s districts. “Access to care” included having a regular source of care, visiting a general doctor, visiting a specialist, and visiting the emergency room.
Efforts moving forward
Various efforts have advanced within local communities and at the Capitol to help lower costs of and increase access to health care.
Donovan sponsored legislation to create the reinsurance program, which will allow health insurance premiums for plans purchased on the individual market to drop by 18% statewide and over 29% in mountain areas.
Peak Health Alliance will begin offering plans in January. A bill co-sponsored by Donovan and Roberts helped create a framework for efforts such as the Peak Health Alliance. Eagle County is now exploring a similar model.
Donovan and Roberts also co-sponsored a bill that creates a framework to create a publicly funded health insurance option.
Vail Health initiatives
“Lowering the cost of health care and increasing access to behavioral health support are the two highest priorities for Vail Health right now,” said Will Cook, CEO of Vail Health.
The organization is working with insurance companies and local legislators to decrease the rates of health insurance on the individual exchange in 2020, Cook said. For small and large group insurance, Vail Health is working on several solutions, including collaborating with the Vail Valley Partnership to create a model similar to Peak Health Alliance. And Vail Health is expanding its financial assistance program to help people living at or below 500% percent of the federal poverty level, Cook said.
Cook also pointed to efforts around access to care, including Mira, an RV that brings food and health services to lower income neighborhoods.
Lastly, Cook pointed to Vail Health’s $60 million commitment to fund a new nonprofit focused on improving behavioral health in the valley.
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