By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
FRISCO — Colorado Insurance Commissioner Marguerite Salazar wants to reduce high health costs in mountain resort communities, but can’t fix anything until 2015.
Salazar met with a standing-room crowd of irate Summit County residents on Thursday to hear their concerns and explore solutions for health insurance rates that are up to three times higher than other parts of the state.
The area is home to several of Colorado’s premier ski resorts including Keystone, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain and Arapahoe Basin.
Congressman Jared Polis, D-Boulder, who represents this region, earlier told Solutions he will seek waivers so people in the area can skip buying health insurance in 2014 without paying penalties. (Click here to read Polis fights sky-high rates as ski town sign-ups stall.)
But a Polis aide who attended Thursday’s hearing said paralysis in Congress is making it difficult to come up with any immediate fixes.
“We’re supporting the commissioner in trying to solve this for 2015. We’re very hopeful we’re going to do that,” said Andy Schultheiss, Polis’ district director. “This isn’t the only problem (with the health reform law). There are things we need to fix, but Congress can’t pass anything right now.
“I know that doesn’t help for 2014,” Schultheiss said. “It’s a problem and it needs to be fixed. We’re going to fix it eventually, but this year it’s going to be tough.”
Resort residents who face a deadline of Dec. 23 to buy coverage that would start on Jan. 1 want answers now.
“We want to know what we can do in order to resolve a situation that is wrong,” said Ted Kravec, who’s in the insurance business. “What can we do because our rates here are outrageous?”
Another woman said can’t afford insurance along with other basic costs.
“We have the choice of putting food on the table or paying the mortgage,” said Tricia Taylor. “Now I have to move to Denver because I can’t get health insurance where I live.”
Salazar urged people not to give up and said she’s considering ways to fix geographic variations that allow insurance companies to charge much higher rates in resort areas from Summit County to Vail and Aspen. Salazar must turn in a proposal to the federal government by the beginning of 2014 that will determine Colorado rates for 2015. The rates for 2014 plans are based on historic health costs throughout Colorado. Some states have uniform statewide rates. But Colorado has a large variation in health costs and therefore has 11 regions with different rates. And because Salazar doesn’t set charges for health care, she can’t fix the root of the problem: high costs.
Summit County residents say a medical monopoly in their community and the high cost of living aggravate health costs that have been rising for years. A real estate agent named Kathy Christina told Salazar she simply would skip insurance rather than paying about $700 a month for an individual plan.
“It’s going to equal the same — $5,000 or $6,000 a year — so if I take the hit on the taxes, that’s a whole lot better than trying to figure out how on Earth I’m going to qualify for this system,” Christina said.
Another woman said if she lived 10 miles away in neighboring Park County, she’d pay about $387 per month on Colorado’s health exchange, Connect for Health Colorado, compared to $666 for a similar plan for Summit County residents. She said her old plan cost $288 per month.
“So explain how that is fair or just,” the woman said.
Salazar said she’s eager to help consumers across the state.
“I get it and I want you to have coverage,” Salazar said. “I don’t want you to give up.”
Audience members interrupted one of Salazar’s assistants as she was trying to explain how federal tax subsidies work. Most said the subsidies were irrelevant to them since there was no way to qualify. When Salazar asked if anyone in the crowd of more than 50 people might qualify, only one man said there was a chance he was on the cusp. The rest said the cost of living is so high that it’s impossible to live on salaries that would qualify. (To qualify for federal tax subsidies, individuals must earn less than about $46,000 while a family of four can earn up to $94,200.)
Jeremy Hufford, a manager for a shopping center in Frisco, said he might barely qualify, but still the rates he’s researched are far beyond reach.
He expects to take a tax penalty rather than paying about $1,200 a month to cover his wife, children and himself.
“It’s outrageous. It’s egregious. It’s unbelievably ridiculous,” Hufford said.
He said he’s been uninsured for 10 years and has to pay out of pocket for care. A simple visit to the doctor when his child has a cold costs $200.
He praised Salazar for coming to hear his concerns but begged her to find a way to make health care more affordable.
“Until the government stands up and says we have to do something about health care costs, this is a moot conversation,” Hufford said.
Another man asked if Colorado could create its own single payer system to take the profit out of health coverage and reduce costs.
Salazar said she would support such a system.
“A lot of folks including me would have loved to have had a single payer system. That’s not what we got,” she said. “We’re merely implementing the law. It’s not a perfect law.”
Other audience members blamed health reform for hiking their costs.
One woman said plans that include mandatory coverage for maternity care and substance abuse treatment are unfairly increasing her costs.
“It’s because of Obamacare,” said the woman, who contends that the healthy are now going to suffer so the sick will be covered. “The harm that’s been done so far outweighs the benefits when you could have accomplished this (in a different way).”
She supported a free market system with a strong safety net to cover the uninsured.
Some Summit County residents pressed for one geographic rating area that would cover the entire state. Salazar said doing that would hike rates in places where health care costs less. But she’s considering changes to the state’s rating regions. Furthermore, she said states that only have one rate have fewer insurance carriers and she wants to preserve as much competition as possible to keep rates down.
“We would probably lose the competitive edge we have. Right now, we have 18 carriers,” Salazar said.
“This is really, really hard,” she said.
Salazar used to run primary care clinics throughout southern Colorado. As CEO, Salazar said she could not afford to operate a clinic in Durango, a resort community much like Colorado’s ski towns.
“I went broke in seven years. It was 15 percent higher to do business there,” Salazar said.
“Cost is truly what drives the premiums.”
She said she was eager to solicit new ideas for reducing costs and wished that health insurance carriers and providers had attended the meeting.
“Maybe we’re missing something,” Salazar said. “We’re still looking (for solutions). We’re still trying to figure this out.”