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Employers ill over health care costs

Whether it’s a little family-operated store, a resort operation, a small-town government or a school district, no employer is immune from the hard realities of the health insurance crisis.

And nowhere is that more apparent than right here in the Roaring Fork and Colorado river valleys.

“Health care costs will be taking a huge toll on Garfield Re-2,” said Theresa Hamilton, director of districtwide services for Garfield School District Re-2.



The district, which includes public schools in New Castle, Silt and Rifle, employs 455 full-time teachers, administrators and staff eligible for benefits.

The numbers are staggering. In 2001-02, Re-2 saw a 26 percent increase, amounting to an additional $247,000, paid out in health care costs.



And in 2002-03, the district faces another 26 percent increase.

“The district has eaten $500,000 in additional charges in the last two years alone,” said Hamilton.

The district’s 2003 projected budget is at $20.5 million. Out of that, $1.79 million will be spend on health insurance for employees.

Re-2 has been covered by the Colorado Employee Benefit Fund, a trust fund used by government agencies, for the past two years. Hamilton said the district shopped around, but even with these massive increases in costs, CEBF is competitive with other carriers.

Re-2 pays for 100 percent of health insurance for a single employee, and pays 50 percent for a policy with dependents.

Even though costs are rising sharply, Re-2 and its employees are receiving less coverage. Deductible amounts are going up, from $250 to $350 for the plan with the most coverage, and co-pays are increasing, from $15 and $25 to $35. Prescription costs are going up from $10 to $20 for generic, and up to $55 for nonpreferred brand prescriptions.

And it’s not just Re-2.

Hamilton said Glenwood Springs-based Roaring Fork Re-1 and Grand Valley District 16 in Parachute are being hit extremely hard with rising insurance costs.

“We’re seriously looking at alternatives,” said Hamilton.

Last Tuesday, representatives from area school districts and Colorado Mountain College met to brainstorm how they can cut costs without sacrificing employee health care. Among the alternatives is a wellness program being unveiled by the Colorado Association of School Boards on Dec. 19.

“We’re looking at more front-end and preventative stuff, instead of dealing with the back end of health care issues once it’s too late,” Hamilton said.

“It’s crazy.”

Sunlight Mountain Resort’s human resource director, Nancy Rasmussen, said Sunlight shops around every year for a competitive health insurance plans because “rates go up every year, 20, 30, 40 percent,” she said. “It’s crazy.”

The resort employs 45 people year-round, and another 135 seasonally.

Rasmussen said Sunlight offers health insurance to full-time, year-round employees. But the company recently instituted a six-month waiting period before health insurance benefits kick in.

The policy was instigated to protect against year-round employees, like administrators and marketing staff, being hired during the winter, and then deciding not to stay when off-season and summer hits.

“We want to make sure they’re really committed year-round before we put them on our insurance,” she said.

This year, Sunlight is covered by Rocky Mountain HMO and Humana Dental.

The resort lowered its share of the cost of insurance for dependents. The company used to pay for 75 percent of the employee and the employee’s dependents’ care. Sunlight still pays 75 percent for employees, but lowered dependents’ care to 50 percent. The employee incurs the rest of the cost.

“We just couldn’t keep paying out that much,” Rasmussen said of Sunlight’s health insurance costs, which run around $100,000 per year.

Because Sunlight operates seasonally, the company works with Fortis, an insurance program that offers six-month seasonal health insurance.

“It’s the nature of our business to be seasonal,” she said, of the dozens of ski instructors, lift operators and snowcat drivers the resort employs in the winter, and the horseback riding outfitters and event coordinators hired in the summer.

Rasmussen said Sunlight doesn’t pay for the Fortis seasonal insurance.

“It’s purely an arrangement between the employee and Fortis,” she said. “It’s a very affordable plan, especially for people at the lower end of the age bracket.”

For example, a 22-year-old male pays $1.60 a day, or $48 a month, for coverage, with a $500 deductible. A female of the same age pays $1.80. A 50-year-old male pays more: $4.20 a day or $126 a month for the same coverage.

Fortis doesn’t require any pre-screening, and seasonal employees can take their policies with them when the season is over.

Rasmussen said the plan is a good one, but few employees take advantage of it. She finds this surprising, given that many staff work on the mountain and could be candidates for ski and board injuries.

“A torn ACL isn’t cheap,” she said of a knee operation that ranks high among ski injuries.

But employees may pass on the Fortis plan because they have insurance with another job or with their spouse. They also may just be taking chances they won’t get hurt.

“The largest number of employees I’ve signed up for Fortis during one season is three,” she said.

Avoid the costs

Randy Corry and his wife Oleta own Martha’s Vineyard, a retail shop in downtown Glenwood. They have kept their store small so they can run it themselves and not incur added expenses like employee health insurance.

“We’ve never had full-time employees, so we’ve never offered health insurance,” Corry said.

The Corrys have a family policy with a very high deductible.

“We have insurance in case something catastrophic happens,” he said.

He said because the family’s deductible is so high, Randy, Oleta and their son Austin generally don’t even get to the point of being able to take advantage of the insurance they have.

Corry said his insurance company offers a medical spending account option, which he is taking advantage of this year. Setting aside money for doctor’s appointments helps the family budget their finances when someone does need medical care.

Corry has a lot of empathy for others who may be paying high insurance costs and getting little in return.

“I don’t know how other people do it,” he said. “I know of friends who look for a job specifically with the goal of getting health insurance.”

Contact Carrie Click: 945-8515, ext 518

cclick@postindependent.com


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