By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
Dropping health insurance made financial sense for the veterinarians who own University Hills Animal Hospital in Denver.
Last year, the company’s share of premiums had spiked to $17,000 after rising about 10 percent each year, and plans were getting so expensive that only 11 of 35 employees had signed up.
The three owners also hoped the Affordable Care Act would help many of their lower-wage workers afford insurance.
“Pre-Obamacare, many of our employees had made a decision not to take health insurance because they couldn’t afford it,” said Dr. Nancy Willerton, a co-owner of the 24-hour facility.
“Our demographic tends to be young invincible folks. For us, it was a fairly inequitable benefit. We have doctors and a handful of employees that have a higher income level, then the $12- to $20-dollar-an-hour people,” Willerton said.
To prepare for reform, the owners had their insurance broker analyze past costs and project prices through the exchange.
“It showed that the majority of our employees would have lower costs for health insurance based on what we knew of their income,” said practice manager Cindy Morgan. “We found most of them could get insurance coverage for much less than what we were able to offer them.”
The broker met with employees in November to walk them through the process of signing up on the state’s new exchange, Connect for Health Colorado.
The jury is still out, however, on how many will follow through. Some employees are finding they can get a good deal —spending even less than they did when the hospital paid half their premiums. For others, the cost is too high, and some didn’t want to bother with a system they saw as flawed.
Morgan said she was able to spend less than she had in the past and cover her husband as well.
“Because my husband and I are relatively healthy, we went for a high-deductible bronze plan,” Morgan said. “I’m covering two people instead of one.”
She settled on a plan through the Colorado HealthOP, and will spend about $150 per month.
Dr. Lauren Zeid, a 28-year-old veterinarian, was disappointed with her options. Zeid had been getting health insurance through a trade organization and got discounts while doing her internship. Her plan used to cost $180 a month and had risen to $260 before getting canceled.
Even though health plans cost less for young people and Zeid lives in Denver, where health insurance is more affordable than other parts of the state, a plan she wanted would have cost about $300 a month and still had high deductibles and co-pays.
“It was a horrible deal for me. I don’t get any government subsidies,” Zeid said.
For this year, she settled on a high-deductible UnitedHealthcare plan she bought outside the exchange for $160 per month.
Zeid also has been dismayed by her experiences when she’s needed care. When Zeid cut herself last year and had to get a flap of skin sutured, she said the cost was about $8,000 for an hour at the ER.
“That (surgery for an animal) would have cost $400 to $500 with pain medications and antibiotics,” Zeid said. “And I call my clients. I offer them reassurance.”
The only follow-up she got was an $800 bill for her share of the cost. She also said the doctor botched the repair and left her with an infection. Based on her poor results, Zeid successfully fought the charges, but that took months.
She learned two lessons about human health care: It costs a lot and “they don’t take their client relationships personally.”
Zeid has no idea what she’ll do when her bare bones plan expires at the end of this year. She liked the idea of the Affordable Care Act, but has a different perspective now.
“I hate it. I don’t want to be insensitive, but for someone like me that doesn’t get any government subsidies, but isn’t making millions of dollars … I don’t think it’s fair.”
Stephanie Fleming, a 33-year-old veterinary assistant, didn’t want to buy insurance through the exchange because she kept hearing about the disastrous federal website.
“I didn’t want to get involved with something and have it crash halfway through the year,” said Fleming.
So she shopped on her own and found a $129 UnitedHealthcare plan that includes vision and has a $10,000 deductible.
“It’s more than my cell phone bill, but I was afraid that if I got hurt, I was going to be screwed. Anything can happen. You’re in the mountains hiking and you can hurt yourself. So I needed something. Otherwise I can’t take advantage of everything here.”
Fleming works by choice in a relatively low-paying field because she adores animals and loves her job. She probably could have qualified for a subsidy, but didn’t trust the system.
Dr. Willerton said that dropping coverage was inevitable.
“With these double-digit premium increases year after year, we were going to fall off a cliff at some point,” she said. “And it should be more affordable as long as the employees follow through and do what they’re supposed to do.”
Willerton is eager to use the $17,000 in savings to reward employees with performance bonuses.
One worker spends extra time arranging for middle and high school students who are interested in animal medicine to shadow employees at the hospital.
Another employee had been on the job just three weeks when a distraught older woman came in and needed to euthanize her cat. The cat had belonged to the woman’s daughter, who had passed away, as had the woman’s husband. The receptionist sat with the woman and held her hand as she wept.
Morgan, the practice manager, later commended the employee and gave her a gift card.
“She had come from human health care system. It’s a very different level of customer service. We’re paid by our clients, not by an insurance company. We tend to attract people who are very dedicated.”