Garfield residents detail health-care-cost concerns
New Castle resident and business owner David Fitzsimmmons used to pay $672 a month for health insurance for him and his family.
This year, with the implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act that has resulted in the country’s highest rates being charged in Garfield County, he faced a minimum premium of $942 a month.
“The insurance rates, frankly, it just comes down to a decision for me and my family, whether we have a roof over our heads or whether we have health insurance. The obvious answer is that we have a roof over heads,” he said Friday during a public input session on health care costs hosted by Garfield County commissioners.
The commissioners held the meeting as they prepare to file a lawsuit over high insurance rates in the county, while continuing to try to work with the state Division of Insurance and with lawmakers in hopes of reaching a solution that doesn’t involve a courtroom. Commissioners are upset that for rate purposes the state has grouped Garfield County with the resort region of Pitkin, Eagle and Summit counties, where factors such as high health care costs contribute to high rates.
Fitzsimmons said his solution has been to take half of what he used to spend for his family of four and put it into a wellness account for health care.
“That’s our solution to Obamacare. They can come get me, I’m not signing up. It’s just not going to happen,” he said.
Dylan Lewis of Silt doesn’t like the high rates, but says he has no choice but to sign up.
“It’s not affordable. We can’t afford it. We’re going to (sign up). What else can I do? We’re not going to declare bankruptcy if I break my arm,” he said.
But he said such high costs mean people like him will have less money to spend in the local economy, perhaps at a restaurant or to go skiing.
Tricia Murray, economic division manager with Garfield County Human Services, said that through mid-February 837 people in the county had obtained private insurance.
“We have 837 people out there who are paying these high-cost premiums,” she said.
Her department is involved with a self-sufficiency program aimed at getting people employed and free from public assistance. But she said they already can face a “cliff effect” from the resulting loss of assistance, and now face high health-insurance costs as well. She wonders how many people will move to counties where insurance rates aren’t so high.
County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said he’s hearing from people who are contemplating just that, or are discussing, perhaps only half-jokingly, getting a divorce so they might qualify individually for assistance for their health-care premiums.
“It really is an attack on the middle class and we need to get this taken care of for all of our citizens,” he said.
John Diemoz lives in Glenwood Springs and his family likewise is facing a major premium increase. He worries that Garfield County, which he said is 25th statewide in per-capita income, is being asked to subsidize rates in Pitkin County, “with the number-one per-capita income far and away,” through lumping the two counties together for rating purposes.
While county officials say Garfield health-care costs don’t justify such high rates, Ron Friemel, who owns Napa auto parts stores in Carbondale and El Jebel, said he has noticed some glaring discrepancies between local health care costs and those elsewhere. These include MRI procedures that can cost $600 in Denver compared to $3,000 or much more at local facilities.
“It costs more to do business in this valley (but) there’s no way in any way shape or form that it should be six times or eight times” more, he said.
Jim Harris of the Glenwood Insurance Agency said he’s seeing premium costs basically double.
“The cost of the care in our area didn’t go up 70, 80, 90 percent,” he said.
“In my opinion what’s going on is we’re merely a crumb on the plate for the state of Colorado.
He said the county’s population is about 1 percent of the statewide total.
“Because we’re so small we’re being thrown into this very unfair category,” he said.
Consumers may qualify for tax credits if their incomes are within 400 percent of poverty level, and one thing county officials and others are discussing with the Division of Insurance is whether that percentage can be raised. Harris doubts it will be changed because it’s a federal decision, and said the focus should be on changing the county’s ratings area. One idea suggested Friday was for the state to just have a single, statewide ratings area.
County Commissioner Mike Samson voiced hope Friday that local officials seem to have gotten Gov. John Hickenlooper’s attention on the issue in the same way northwest Colorado counties did regarding federal management of the greater sage-grouse, another issue that could have local economic repercussions.
Meanwhile, Amy Barr, executive director of United Way of Garfield County, voiced appreciation for the county’s leadership on health care.
“Nobody cares about us except us so I really applaud you for working on this,” she said.
County commissioners on Friday directed County Attorney Frank Hutfless to prepare a budget summary of the costs for pursuing litigation against the Division of Insurance, and to work on preparing a suit to file in federal court as well. Commissioners plan a meeting March 20 with Barbara Kelley, executive director of the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies, and Marguerite Salazar, commissioner of the Colorado Division of Insurance, in a last-ditch attempt to avoid litigation.
Commissioners Friday also directed Hutfless and his staff to prepare a draft bill to be pursue in the state legislature to modify rating areas and take other steps to lower health care costs this year.