Vail Daily column: Health insurance cost debate reaching critical point
As anyone who relies on an individual health insurance policy will attest, Western Colorado is at a crisis point in terms of affordability. Coverage for a family of four who has income of about $64,000 a year can cost a double digit percentage of their after tax income. Some families are reportedly finding premiums as high as $26,000 per year. Our rates are recognized as the highest in the nation and in many cases are nearly double that of areas such as metro Denver.
The latest statistics available are for 2015, before insurance premiums took another double digit jump for 2016, and thousands lost their only option of affordable coverage when Colorado’s only health insurance co-op, Colorado Health Op was shut down by the state.
At the end of 2015, many Western Counties were showing uninsured rates in the 11 percent range, and quite likely that percentage is higher now due to the increase in costs and loss of Colorado HealthOP. Uninsured rates in areas where premiums are far lower see an uninsured rate as low as 2.8 percent.
The cause of these high rates are due to several causes, most notably the notoriously high cost of health care and lack of competition. The second reason is that in Colorado health insurance premiums are set regionally. Most of the Western Slope with the exception of Grand Junction and Mesa County are in what is deemed “Zone 9” which encompasses 21 counties.
To try and remedy this situation the Colorado House and Senate representatives (Kerry Donovan, Diane Mitsch Bush, Bob Rankin, Millie Hamner and Ellen Roberts) have worked with the county commissioners of Eagle, Lake, Summit, Routt, Pitkin, Garfield and Gunnison Counties to push House Bill 16-1336 to study putting all of Colorado into one geographic zone for insurance premiums. An ad-hoc group of citizens has joined in to offer up what grass roots support they can muster.
If Colorado adopted one geographic rating area, then they would join seven other states and several U.S. territories that have done the same thing. The result would be that health insurance costs would be treated like all other forms of insurance in that the risk and costs would be spread equally amongst all people in the state.
Right now, if metro Denver suffers a huge homeowners casualty loss from a hail storm, for example, all homeowners across the state share in increased premiums. But if Western Slope residents incur a disproportionate share of health costs, then those costs are only shared only by Western Slope residents. The basic concept of insurance is to spread the risk over a large pool of insured.
This system has resulted in the highest rate of uninsured populations in the state, and likely one of the highest rate of uninsured in the nation. A high percentage are individuals who have never lacked health insurance in their life but can no longer afford it. There is anecdotal evidence of families either leaving the area or planning to leave because of this issue.
The bill to do this study has cleared the Colorado House of Representatives, and now faces scrutiny from the Colorado Senate, and if approved must then be signed by Gov. Hickenlooper.
As a concerned citizen who is feeling the bite of a $744 premium for my individual policy, I have joined in this effort to do what I can. Eagle County Commissioner Jill Ryan invited me to testify before the House Committee who initially approved the bill, which was a very interesting day and a great experience.
When the bill was first introduced, I started a website and petition at http://www.equal rates.com to ask for the House to approve this bill. Combined with the efforts of many others, we have claimed victory in the first round, but there is still the state Senate and then Gov. Hickenlooper to persuade. Once that is done and the bill signed, the study could be completed by the end of this summer.
If you would like to make your voice heard on this important matter, then now is the time. Sign the petition on http://www.equalrates.com or email your state representatives urging support of House Bill 1336. As of Sunday, we have more than 1,000 signatures that will be presented to the Colorado Senate, and it would be great to have 2,000 or more.
Chris Neuswanger has lived in the Vail Valley since 1979.
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