Glenwood Springs employer urges price-shopping to control health costs
February 5, 2014
GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Steve Beckley, like many smaller employers across the country, is now required under the federal Affordable Care Act to offer health insurance to his employees at the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park.
The ACA, commonly known as "Obamacare," mandates that businesses with 50 or more full-time equivalent (FTE) workers provide employer-sponsored health insurance.
The Caverns, though it has just 18 year-round, full-time employees that were eligible for health insurance, has a seasonal workforce during the better part of the year that averages out to 75 FTEs, Beckley explained.
In setting up an employee health insurance plan that officially started Jan. 1, Beckley and his human resources director, Eric Brotherson, also came up with a unique incentive aimed at keeping health insurance claims, and future insurance rates, in check.
“Certainly, it’s a case-by-case thing. But if you’re looking at an MRI that might cost $2,500 or $3,000 here, compared to $800 in Denver, it’s worth it to send an employee there for the day in an effort to keep our costs contained.”
Owner, Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park
After selecting a low-deductible plan with a statewide provider network, the company distributed a list of phone numbers for providers not only locally, but all across the state, including Denver and Grand Junction.
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The idea being, if an employee needs a non-emergency medical or diagnostic procedure for which they find a better rate someplace other than in the Roaring Fork Valley, they're encouraged to take their business elsewhere.
"If they find that it's cheaper in Denver, we'll pay for an overnight stay and their regular pay rate for a day or two," Beckley said.
"Certainly, it's a case-by-case thing," he said. "But if you're looking at an MRI that might cost $2,500 or $3,000 here, compared to $800 in Denver, it's worth it to send an employee there for the day in an effort to keep our costs contained."
Given the region's already higher health-care costs compared to the metropolitan areas, and estimates that insurance rates could go up another 15 percent next year, Brotherson said it made sense to control costs from the start.
"As we started looking ahead and planning, we wanted a good long-term fit," he said. "For us, this was just a matter of making a good business decision and doing what's right for the company and for the employees."
Health-care price shopping isn't necessarily new.
"Consumerism in health care really started to evolve from about 2005 or 2006, when HSA [health savings account] types of policies really made people start shopping more," said Scott Bolitho of the Glenwood Insurance agency.
"We're seeing it more now with individuals looking at self-funded, high-deductible plans," Bolitho said. "People are starting to shop for health care like they shop for a car."
Exploring the option
That approach may be less common in more rural areas where choices are fewer and the option would be a long drive to the Front Range for a pre-arranged procedure.
But, if more employers start offering incentives for their workers to export some of their health care out of their local community in favor of lower costs, it could become more common.
Other local businesses, both private and public, are already exploring the option.
"We have heard that it's something that's being done by other employers out there," said John Bosco, chief financial officer for the Glenwood Hot Springs Lodge & Pool. "It's definitely on our radar."
The Hot Springs has for many years offered employee health insurance, and is required to continue to do so under the ACA, he said.
Colorado's new insurance rating zone system for setting rates under the ACA placed Garfield County in the most-expensive rating zone in the state, along with neighboring Pitkin, Eagle and Summit counties.
If businesses don't take steps to control insurance costs on the front end, they're likely to see their group rates go up as well, Bosco agreed.
"My belief is that, until we see more consumerism and incentives to shop around, there's no reason for employees to shop around," he said.
"It's a pretty novel idea, really," Bosco said of the Caverns' approach. "If you pay a travel allowance or an overnight stay, you come out money ahead," compared to a higher insurance claim for having that same procedure done locally.
The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority (RFTA), which operates the publicly funded bus system between Aspen and Rifle, is limited to a local provider network under the government health pool insurance plan that it offers to its employees, said CEO Dan Blankenship.
"We haven't gotten to the point of telling our people to shop around, because the costs are often higher and the amount insurance will pay is lower if they go out of network," he said.
But, "If our employees can go out of network and find something cheaper, and we end up paying less in claims, that may be something we want to think about down the road," Blankenship said.
"We are always looking at the health benefits we provide, and attempting to find more cost-effective ways of paying for our insurance," he said.