Garfield County residents sound off on health care rates
February 21, 2014
GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Ron Friemel takes pride in doing what he believes to be the right thing as an employer, offering company-sponsored health insurance as a benefit for his 20 or so employees at the Carbondale and New Castle NAPA auto parts stores.
But that may have to change under the new resort-area insurance rate zone established by Colorado insurance officials for Garfield County in the state's implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act, Friemel said during a health insurance forum sponsored by the county commissioners on Friday.
Though he is technically not required to offer health insurance under the new healthcare laws, since he employs fewer than 50 people, Friemel said the new rates for plans offered in the four-county resort-area region are too much for him to absorb as a small business owner.
"We no longer can even look at full coverage," Friemel said, adding that even the partially self-funded plan he now offers may have to go due to a more than doubling of rates under the new system.
He said one way to address high insurance premiums is to work as consumers to help bring health care costs down by shopping around to have certain procedures done.
"I get it if we're talking 10 or 20 percent more, it does cost more to do business in this valley," he said.
"But there's no way we should be paying that much more," Friemel said of costs that can be two or three times more to have some procedures done locally.
Gina Neuman of Glenwood Springs offered that she and her husband's construction company, DM Neuman Construction, used to be able to pay for full health coverage for its supervisors and 50 percent for its laborers.
Especially in the construction business, "our company has always taken the philosophy that we need to provide insurance to our employees," she said.
Neuman and Friemel were among the more than 50 people who attended the special forum sponsored by the commissioners as they prepare evidence to convince Colorado Division of Insurance officials to remove Garfield County from the more expensive resort region.
The commissioners are considering a variety of "emergency measures," including a possible lawsuit, arguing that Garfield County should not have been lumped in with Pitkin, Eagle and Summit counties in setting the state's geographic rate zones.
"The commissioners have been very consistent in their message that waiting until 2016 to do something about this is not acceptable, nor should it be acceptable across the state," County Attorney Frank Hutfless said in reference to statements by state Insurance Commissioner Marguerite Salazar that changes to the rate zones aren't likely for two years.
However, Salazar has indicated that if enough new information can be presented by March 15, the state could consider making changes sooner.
The Friday "community input session" was part of the county's effort to gather testimony about people's personal experiences and facts around actual health care costs in the county compared to the rest of the state.
"We're told the reason for the higher rates is the higher cost of health care here," Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said. "We did some research ourselves, and Garfield County is actually below Denver metro area rates and the state average for nine different procedures."
One after one at the Friday session, business owners and individuals shared their stories about shopping for health insurance on the state exchange, including many of whom who said they had their former plans canceled or rates adjusted significantly upward.
"When the Affordable Care Act went into effect, I got a notice from my health insurance company that I would be grandfathered in," said Stanley Trulock of Glenwood Springs.
At first, the company indicated the increase in his premium would be about $26 per month, which he said was less than the annual increase he had been accustomed to.
"A month later, they came back and said they had made a mistake, that it would be an additional $160 per month," Trulock said. "They also said I was welcome to go look into affordable health care elsewhere."
That proved to be an even more expensive alternative, with rates double what he was used to paying, he said, adding that would take his entire Social Security check each month.
David Fitzsimmons of New Castle said it literally came down to a choice between keeping a roof over his family's heads or having health coverage.
"That was an obvious decision. I'm not opting into Obamacare," he said in reference to President Obama's signature health care law.
John Diemoz of Glenwood Springs said he is looking at an increase from about $7,800 to nearly $16,000 per year to cover himself, his wife and daughter.
"That's $8,000 that won't be going into the local economy," he said.
Local insurance agent Don Click said he got out of the health insurance business three years ago, but one of the problems is the lack of competition among providers on the Western Slope.
"It dismays me that the state insurance commissioner does not understand the law of large numbers," Click said, noting that Denver alone has a larger population than the entire West Slope.
"Left to their own design, the insurance companies are going to market to Denver, not out here," Click said, noting that the Denver area has more than 15 carriers compared to just "three or four" in Garfield County.
"Unless the insurance business is required to do business throughout the state, you are going to have adverse selection like we are seeing here," he said.
Following the public hearing Friday, county commissioners directed Hutfless to prepare a summary of legal costs for the county to pursue litigation against the state over the county's inclusion in the resort rating area.
Hutfless will also come up with draft legislation aimed at modifying the geographic rating areas in an effort to lower health care costs yet this year.
In addition, county representatives including Commission Chairman John Martin plan to meet March 20 with Insurance Commissioner Salazar and Barbara Kelley, executive director of the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies.
"While the county has made multiple efforts on the matter already, the board will make this one final attempt to change Garfield County's insurance rating classification in order to get insurance premiums lowered, as it prepares litigation on the matter," according to a news release sent out by the county late Friday afternoon.