By Diane Carman
In a move that could have wide-ranging impacts on health care costs, competition and access to services across the state, Kaiser Permanente Colorado announced Friday that it hopes to expand by 2016 to mountain communities along the I-70 corridor.
“Our interest in expanding to the mountain communities is driven by a couple of factors,” Donna Lynne, president of Kaiser Permanente Colorado, said in a written statement.
First, she said, the company has a commitment to serve as many people as possible in the state, and second, “there’s been a lot of attention around the high cost in those communities and the needs that many of the people that live in those communities have.”
While Lynne is not prepared to announce exactly when the expansion will occur and in which communities, the company is “very serious about this,” said Amy Whited, manager of public relations and digital media for Kaiser.
The goal is to begin offering plans in the new area in 2016, Whited said. “It’s going to take some time to build the relationships necessary to make this happen.”
Kaiser health plans have been available in parts of Colorado for more than 40 years, expanding over time to serve cities along the Front Range from Fort Collins to Pueblo. Membership has been growing rapidly in recent years to more than 535,000, and the company reported that 58,344 new members have enrolled through the health insurance exchange. That number accounts for about 46 percent of those who bought insurance through Connect for Health Colorado during the six-month open enrollment period that ended March 31.
Lynne said the numbers are a point of pride for the organization.
“We believe that is a reflection of the combination of us being one of the two highest-quality ranked plans in the exchange and the fact that we are offering across-the-board affordable health insurance for the people who are moving into the exchange,” she said in the statement.
To meet the demand for health care services, Kaiser has been expanding medical offices and hiring more providers in recent years as enrollment has expanded, Whited said. That effort to build capacity is continuing in earnest with the influx of new members through the exchange.
The service delivery model for communities along the I-70 corridor may be different from operations along the Front Range, Lynne said. “We’re considering a number of options, many of which involve partnering in the community, but also bringing our Kaiser Permanente model and staff to the mountain communities.”
Whited said it is “too early to tell” what the system ultimately will look like.
Kaiser will have to move quickly to hit the 2016 target if it is to be ready to enroll new members by the health care exchange deadlines. “That’s why we don’t have any firm dates yet,” Whited said.
The other, even bigger challenge will be to bend the cost curve for health care in the region.
Several of the counties along I-70 — including Summit and Eagle – have among the highest health care costs in the country. Introducing a new player known for aggressive cost controls could change the dynamic in the region.
“More competition from the insurance carriers is better for us,” said Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky.
Jankovsky and fellow Garfield County commissioners had considered suing the state over the high cost of health insurance. Garfield County was assigned to a region that includes the high-cost resort counties, so despite having significantly lower health care costs than nearby Pitkin and Eagle counties, residents in Garfield County are required to join them and pay the highest health insurance premiums in the nation.
While the Kaiser spokeswomen are cautious not to mention any communities by name, they signaled that the expansion could be part of a larger long-term plan.
“We want to bring it everywhere we can,” Lynne said.