By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
Fending off a potential lawsuit from angry western Colorado residents who face the highest insurance premiums in the nation, Colorado Insurance Commissioner Marguerite Salazar on Friday announced she supports a new health insurance rating map for the state.
Salazar unveiled the plan and will review comments on it before deciding by next Friday which health insurance rating map will apply for 2015.
Colorado currently has 11 rating areas across the state: seven in metropolitan areas and another four that group rural counties together.
The new plan would group all the western Colorado counties together — except for Mesa County, home to the City of Grand Junction. It would also group together all the counties on the Eastern Plains and in rural parts of southern Colorado.
People in resort counties are likely to pay less for health care while others living in rural areas may pay slightly more.
Salazar estimated that the map she supports could bring costs down by about 4 to 8 percent in resort areas and could raise costs in other parts of rural areas by 4 to 6 percent.
While there is no perfect way to divide the state for health insurance rates, Salazar based her decision on a $45,000 actuarial analysis done with federal grant funds for the Division of Insurance by Kansas City consultants.
“It’s about fairness,” Salazar said. When she signed on to the map for this year that created a high-cost resort area, Salazar said she had no idea how dramatic the cost disparities would be.
“We found out pretty quickly,” said Salazar, who traveled the state and heard from Coloradans in rural areas about their anger over health costs.
She said grouping all the rural counties in western Colorado and similarly those in eastern Colorado makes the most sense.
“It’s the best way to create that sense of fairness,” Salazar said.
The plan won kudos from western Colorado leaders who are relieved their residents might see slightly lower rates as soon as next January.
Kaiser Permanente Colorado also announced on Friday that it wants to expand to western Colorado communities along the I-70 corridor by 2016, which could further lower rates.
“We welcome this proposed recommendation,” Dan Gibbs, a commissioner from Summit County said of Salazar’s proposed new health insurance rating map. “The status quo is killing our middle class in our mountain communities.
“Doing nothing is a non-option for us. Our constituents are demanding a change. They’re deciding whether they can make a house payment or get insurance,” he said.
Commissioner Tom Jankovsky of Garfield County echoed Gibbs’ support. That’s a sharp turnaround for Garfield County where the commissioners had earlier authorized their county attorney to sue the state over disproportionately high rates.
“It’s been frustrating and stressful,” Jankovsky said. “This is a big relief.”
He said he supports the idea of creating one large rating area for all of western Colorado.
“The best solution for rural Colorado would have been to have one statewide rating area, but that wasn’t going to happen. We are pleased to be with the rest of the western counties. We feel that we are more similar to them than to Pitkin and Eagle counties,” he said.
His only concern now is that rates in some other counties could increase to help subsidize health costs in expensive counties like Eagle and Pitkin, both home to ritzy ski areas.
“How much is this going to affect our neighbors?” Jankovsky said.
Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, welcomed the proposed rating area and said it will help get coverage for the “uninsured workforce” in her district.
“We saw a very significant inequality in this state,” Schwartz said. “I want to acknowledge the work that the department has done. They’ve come in and they’ve listened to our workers.”
Sen. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, also got a bill passed this year that sets up a health cost commission. Gov. John Hickenlooper is expected to sign the measure and commissioners could begin meeting by late summer or early fall.
Aguilar said that if Coloradans can begin to drive down health costs, more people will be able to afford coverage. A bigger pool of people with insurance could then drive costs down further.
“All of us in the state think that cost is an issue,” Aguilar said. “We have to sit at the table and talk about it.”
Anyone wanting to submit comments on the proposed rating area change can send them to [email protected]