Since the beginning of the recession, the number of Coloradans without health insurance has grown by one-hundred-and-fifty-thousand. CPR Health Reporter Eric Whitney has more on why, and what it means for Colorado.

CPR Health Reporter Eric Whitney: Debbi Jo Wilkie, of Breckenridge, is a casualty of the recession.

Breckenridge Resident Debbi Jo Wilkie: I did real estate closings for 25 years here in the county, and once the real estate started going down, then there was corporate downsizing.

Reporter: That meant she lost her job, and the health insurance that came with it. All she can find now are seasonal jobs, and they don’t offer insurance.
The Colorado Health Access Survey, released yesterday, says the number of Colorado jobs that come with health benefits has dropped by 5 percent since 2008.

Wilkie: Of course I can get insurance, but it’s just crazy, crazy expensive. So right now, I’m free flying, I’ve never done this in my life. 

Reporter:  Bummer for Debbi Jo Wilkie, especially if she gets sick or in an accident. But Ned Calonge, president of the Colorado Trust, says it’s not just the people without insurance  who suffer when they need health care. Hospitals do, too.                          When those uninsured show up in the emergency room, hospitals are required by law to at least stabilize them.

Colorado Trust President Dr. Ned Calonge:  And so they have to cover the cost of that uncompensated care. Who pays for that? You and I do, so our insurance premiums go up.

Reporter: The Health Access Survey released yesterday says emergency room use across the state is up about 4 percent since 2008. Researchers say a big part of that uptick is because uninsured people are getting a lot of their health care in emergency rooms. Dr. Calonge announced the survey results at a press conference yesterday. He said emergency rooms are poor substitutes for the regular, ongoing care people should be getting from a primary care doctor or clinic, but can’t afford.

Calonge : Being un- or under-insured is a barrier, and we have good data that people who are uninsured don’t get the preventive services, or even the chronic disease services they need, and this impacts their chances for a long and healthy life.

Reporter: When Calonge says “under-insured,” he’s talking about people who spend 10 percent or more  of their income on out-of-pocket health costs, over and above what they pay in insurance premiums.  Stuff like co-pays or special drugs. Michelle Lueck, president of the Colorado Health Institute, says the under-insured really add to the number of Coloradans who neglect their health because they can’t afford the care they need.

Colorado Health Institute President Michelle Lueck: If we look at the magnitude of the issue, of both the un- and under-insured within the state, over 1.5 million,  nearly one in three Coloradans are un- or under-insured within the state.

Reporter:  The recession has a lot to do with that, as people lost health benefits along with their jobs. But health insurance prices in Colorado were going up 10 percent a year - and more - even when the economy was healthy. To Calonge, the trend is clear.

Calonge: We’re reaching a tipping point where there’ll be more people who are uninsured- I mean, you can see that- than who are insured.  Look at projections from economists,  that say it could become up to 40 percent of your take-home income by 2019.

Reporter: The federal health care law President Obama signed last year was designed to solve that problem.  It’s requirement that nearly every American have health insurance starting in 2014 is supposed to drive health care costs down by making it affordable for people to get preventive care, instead of showing up in emergency rooms with catastrophes that could have been avoided.
Not everyone is convinced it will work, or that it’s even constitutional.  This week the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take up that question in March.

[Photo: Denver Health]