By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
Colorado’s mountain resort communities including Aspen, Vail and Summit County have the dubious distinction of being the most expensive places to buy health insurance in the country and no relief is on its way from either the state or federal government.
U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, has been fighting for penalty waivers for Summit County residents who don’t buy health insurance this year. But he hasn’t succeeded in getting them yet. Polis sent a letter seeking help to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and received a response late last week indicating that the federal officials can do nothing since states set up geographic areas that determine insurance prices. (Click here to read Polis’ letter and here to read Sebelius’ response.)
“The congressman is still very concerned,” said Scott Overland, Polis’ communications director. “We are not giving up. We’re still looking for different avenues for the congressman to help.”
Overland said he’s certain Colorado’s governor will be trying to find ways to bring down health insurance costs as well.
“Nobody wants their state to be the place that has the highest rates in the country,” Overland said.
Polis’ aides have requested, but not yet received, detailed breakdowns from Colorado insurance officials for how they determined pricing areas for various regions of the state. Polis represents Summit County, which includes several ski areas and where the high incomes required to afford living near swanky ski resorts disqualify many people from federal tax subsidies designed to make health insurance more affordable.
Health News Colorado reported last week that Colorado Insurance Commissioner Marguerite Salazar is not changing Colorado’s 11 regions that determine health insurance rates for either this year or next, and Garfield County’s leaders are so angry about being grouped with higher cost counties that they may sue. Garfield County officials also accused the state of allowing health insurance lobbyists to design Colorado’s geographic rating system.
Kaiser Health News this week ranked the nation’s 10 most expensive regions in the country by comparing costs of the cheapest mid-level “silver” plan for 40-year-old individuals across the country. Colorado’s resort region topped the list with prices for the cheapest plans approaching $500 a month. (Click here to read The Ten Most Expensive Insurance Markets in the U.S.)
People who live in Colorado resort counties have been furious for months since they discovered through Colorado’s health exchange, Connect for Health Colorado, that they must pay significantly more than people elsewhere in the state.
Rates for plans on the exchange are up to three times higher in resort communities from Breckenridge to Vail and Aspen than in other parts of the state. For instance, a 40-year-old buying a silver plan in Greeley could pay as little as $232 per month while that same person in the resort communities could pay as much as $667 per month for a silver plan.
Tamara Drangstveit has been trying to sign people up for insurance in Summit County. Back in October, she said people took one look at prices and walked out the door. Drangstveit, who is executive director of the Family and Intercultural Resource Center in Silverthorne, said sign-ups have continued to be slow.
Since enrollments started on Oct. 1, she said she’s enrolled 31 individuals and 21 families. She’s hoping to enroll about five more people by the end of this week, but is disappointed that almost everyone who is signing up qualifies for Medicaid and very few people are buying private health insurance.
“Our middle-class families are not qualifying for insurance. If you’re considered middle class in Summit County, you’re going to earn over 400 percent of poverty level and you’re not going to qualify for subsidies (to make insurance more affordable),” Drangstveit said.
She and her husband and child get insurance through his company. If they did not, Drangstveit has calculated that it would cost them $1,500 a month for their family of three through the exchange.
“That’s crazy. How is anybody supposed to do that? There’s just no way. If you look at the typical middle-class family in Summit County, they’re paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing. And Summit County was just ranked among the highest in the nation for child care costs. If you have one child, you’re spending another $1,000 for child care. There’s nothing left for health insurance, let alone expensive health insurance.”
While Colorado Insurance Commissioner Marguerite Salazar and others have pointed to higher health costs in Summit County, Drangstveit said the “these costs aren’t 40 and 50 percent higher.” She blamed insurance companies for gouging customers in resort areas.
“This is not just about costs. This is about the insurance companies setting the rates,” she said.
Health experts in Summit County have been meeting to figure out why their costs are high and how they can bring them down. Part of the problem is the seasonal economy.
“We have a Flight for Life (helicopter) at the hospital. During the winter, use is high. During the summer, it’s not used. But we still have to pay the pilot…(all) year to sit there,” Drangstveit said. “Nobody will deny that costs are part of the issue.”
But she said residents need a solution, not to be told that they will get no help for the next two years.
“It’s just wrong. It’s not fair for the families here. I understand the politics of this issue,” she said. “But you can mandate folks to have insurance if they can’t afford it. That’s not right.”
According to Kaiser Health News, here are the nation’s 10 most expensive regions:
$483: Colorado Mountain Resort Region. Eagle, Garfield and Pitkin counties, home of Aspen and Vail ski resorts. Summit County premiums are $462.
$461: Southwest Georgia. Baker, Calhoun, Clay, Crisp, Dougherty, Lee, Mitchell, Randolph, Schley, Sumter, Terrell and Worth counties.
$456: Rural Nevada Esmeralda, Eureka, Humboldt, Lander, Lincoln, Elko, Mineral, Pershing, White Pine and Churchill counties.
$445: Far western Wisconsin. Pierce, Polk and St. Croix counties, across the border from St. Paul, Minn.
$423: Southern Georgia. A swath of counties adjacent to the even more expensive region. Ben Hill, Berrien, Brooks, Clinch, Colquitt, Cook, Decatur, Early, Echols, Grady, Irwin, Lanier, Lowndes, Miller, Seminole, Thomas, Tift and Turner counties.
$405: Most of Wyoming. All counties except Natrona and Laramie.
$399: Southeast Mississippi. George, Harrison, Jackson and Stone counties. In Hancock County, the lowest price plan is $447.
$383: Fairfield, Conn. The southwestern-most county, which includes many affluent commuter towns for New York City.
*Unlike other states, Vermont does not let insurers charge more to older people and less to younger ones. Its ranking therefore will differ depending on the ages of the consumers.
Sources: Kaiser Family Foundation Program for the Study of Health Reform and Private Insurance; healthcare.gov; state exchanges.