Southwest Colorado residents and state lawmakers want to see health insurance reform, even as an increased number of Coloradans signed up this year for the state health care exchange.
In western Colorado, customers of the state health exchange pay much higher health insurance premiums compared with those on the Front Range and have fewer options for insurance coverage.
It’s a problem members of the Health Care and Seniors Committee of Indivisible Durango, a political action group, would like to see addressed in a way that would lower costs and provide more options for insurance.
“It’s not good for the state overall to have these rural counties where people can’t afford health insurance,” said Guinn Unger, a committee member.
Unger and his wife, Shauna Unger, have seen the insurance premiums for Shauna’s health exchange insurance coverage steadily rise, said Guinn Unger, who qualifies for Medicare.
Shauna Unger’s premiums have risen from $550 per month two years ago to about $1,200 per month, Guinn Unger said. Shauna’s rates for one of the exchange’s cheapest plans went up dramatically, in part because she recently turned 55, he said.
Many health exchange customers can qualify for federal tax credits based on their income, but those are not available to the Ungers, Guinn said.
“When you really end up in trouble, is when you are just over the limit,” he said.
Unger is among the 169,000 Coloradans who purchased health insurance through the state exchange Connect for Health Colorado for 2019. The state saw a 2 percent increase compared with the previous open enrollment period for insurance.
In La Plata County, the number of health exchange customers increased by 7 percent, up to 3,123. In Montezuma County, 811 customers purchased insurance through the exchange, an increase of 10 percent.
A simplified application system and good deals on insurance are among the factors that likely contributed to an increase in sign-ups for coverage, state experts said.
“Colorado insurance customers could find some really good deals on coverage this year if they qualify for federal tax credits,” said Joe Hanel, a spokesman for the Colorado Health Institute. “Some people could even get bronze plans for no monthly premium.”
People signing up for insurance in Southwest Colorado may have paid more for it than their peers on the Front Range.
For example, a mid-level plan through Friday Health Plans will cost between $760 and $820 per month on average in Southwest Colorado, according to the state Division of Insurance. In Boulder, mid-level Friday plans cost between $480 and $520 on average.
Health care costs tend to be higher in western Colorado because communities tend to be smaller and home to older residents, Hanel said.
To help address the higher costs in western Colorado, the Indivisible Durango committee would like to see lawmakers require companies to offer insurance through the health exchange in every county at the same price, Unger said. He said he believes Medicare-for-all is the best long-term strategy for health insurance, but the Indivisible committee is interested in a change that could help residents in the short term.
The committee’s request might be hard to implement because insurance companies trying to move into new areas of the state tend to struggle with the limited number of medical providers to contract with, said Adam Fox, director of strategic engagement with the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative.
If companies move into rural areas, they are also competing to cover a relatively small number of people, he said.
The requirement proposed by the Indivisible committee could end up disincentivizing insurers from offering insurance on the health exchange, he said.
Unger said he believes an insurance company would be financially motivated to stay in Colorado if it was required to serve the whole state.
One strategy lawmakers are exploring to bring health care costs down is a state-run insurance option for individuals that would compete with the private insurance options offered on the state exchange, Fox said. Legislation to create the public option is moving through the state House, but if it passes, it will likely take two or three years to implement, he said.
“It’s one of those things that we need to get started now if we ever want it to have an impact,” Fox said.
Colorado lawmakers have also discussed setting up a fund that insurance companies could draw on if they had a year of particularly high claims, he said. It is a strategy called reinsurance that worked to lower insurance premiums for residents in Minnesota and Alaska. However, it’s unclear how the program would be funded, he said.