Grand County feeling the health insurance pinch
May 3, 2016
Last fall, Fraser resident Francie de Vos received an odd letter from her health insurance provider.
The company, Cigna Health Insurance, was no longer offering coverage in Grand County.
De Vos would have to find another provider.
"It was totally based on zip code," de Vos said. "I didn't think anything of it. I was thinking I'd just call around and get another policy. I'm easy to insure."
Reality proved to be a bit more complicated.
A quick visit to the state insurance exchange website, connectforhealthco.com, revealed a paucity of insurers actually offering coverage in Grand County, de Vos said.
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The two companies that offered de Vos an individual coverage plan were charging seemingly exorbitant sums.
She ended up with Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield.
"My insurance premiums went from $559 a month, for individual coverage of a healthy individual – no preexisting conditions, no prescriptions, a non smoker – to $1119 a month," de Vos recalls, a bit of disbelief still lingering in her expression.
The deductible on her new plan is $10,000.
"It's kind of a real racket right now," she said.
De Vos said watching her health insurance costs double so quickly was a shock, and she's not alone.
Coloradans seeking insurance coverage across the Western Slope have seen health insurance costs balloon over the last two years.
Mountain communities have experienced higher premiums than Front Range
communities for the last 25 years, according the Colorado Division of Insurance,
After President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law in March 2010, the division divided the state into 11 geographic rating areas, in which premiums are determined by medical costs in each area.
In 2014, the resort region including Garfield, Eagle, Summit and Pitkin counties gained national notoriety for having the highest health insurance premiums in country, according to a survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Attempting to address the excessive costs, the division once again sought to later the areas, this time by reducing the total number of areas to nine, lumping 17 other counties including Grand into the resort rating area.
The move seemed to stave off costs for a year or so, but costs for counties in area nine have again begun to rise.
While cost increases in larger resort communities have made headlines in 2016, residents of counties like Grand, much more rural than resort, have found the increases hard to stomach.
Lauri Talbott, from Winter Park, said the cheapest plan she could find had a $780 premium and $6,300 deductible.
Two years ago, Talbott paid around $226 for coverage, she said.
Last year, she paid about $680.
"I have friends that live [in Denver], that own a house here and also rent an apartment in Denver," Talbott said. "Their insurance was $600 or $700 cheaper at their house in Denver, and they're using that to get insurance."
State commissioner to study issue
Concerns seem to be making their way across the Divide to politicians in Denver.
Both houses of the state congress have passed House Bill 1336, which directs the state commissioner of insurance to conduct a study to determine the "impact and viability of establishing a single geographic area, consisting of the entire state," according to the bill.
State Rep. KC Becker, the Democrat representing House District 13, which includes Grand County and part of Boulder, said she's aware of the steep costs that mountain residents are facing.
Becker co-sponsored HB 1336.
"I don't think we have all the answers yet, and I don't think there's a good reason for there being such a huge difference between the Front Range and the Western Slope," Becker said.
The bill is currently awaiting Governor John Hickenlooper's signature.
"I think the whole idea behind insurance is to spread costs among more people," Becker said. "So I'm definitely supportive of the effort to examine the issue first."
Senator Randy Baumgardner, the Republican representing most of Grand County Senate District 8, did not return a request for comment.
Local residents promote awareness
Fraser resident and activist Eileen Waldow testified about high insurance costs before committees in both houses of the state legislature.
Waldow said it was clear that insurance industry representatives speaking to legislators were unfamiliar with mountain counties like Grand County.
De Vos, who attended the house committee hearing, said insurance companies said high costs of healthcare in mountain communities were driving the high premiums.
Insurance companies said a lack of competition was also contributing to high costs, Waldow said.
"It's hard to get all the answers," de Vos said.
Since attending the committee hearing, de Vos said she and Waldow had garnered more local support for addressing the issue.
"It's going to start affecting the economic prosperity of our country as people start realizing that, 'wait a minute, I can't afford to live here,'" de Vos said
Waldow said she'd heard rumors that people were already leaving the county because of heath insurance costs.
In the meantime, Waldow and de Vos said they were working to raise awareness of the issue among residents of Grand County.
"People are spending more on their health insurance than their mortgage, which is a pretty sobering thought," de Vos said. "My premium is more than my mortgage."
Hank Shell can be reached at 970-557-6010.