When Colorado’s insurance commissioner Margeurite Salazar visits the mountains this week, the reception she may receive from residents could be icier than the weather.
Salazar is hosting a meeting Thursday night in Frisco to explain why some high-country residents will be paying nearly twice as much for their health insurance through Colorado's new exchange website as their counterparts along the Front Range.
“Unfortunately, the way the pricing came in under the Affordable Care Act is it was anything but affordable in Summit and Eagle Counties,” Congressman Jared Polis, who represents part of the central mountains, said.
Polis, a Democrat, is asking the White House to give mountain residents a one-year break from the health care law’s requirement that everyone have health insurance.
Polis also wants the federal government to consider requiring carriers to combine some areas with the highest premiums with lower-cost neighboring communities, to bring down their average policy price [See a map of the state's current geographical rating areas].
But Salazar, whose job it is to make sure insurance companies aren’t gouging Coloradans, doesn’t think mountain residents should be too concerned with the sticker price of polices on the state’s exchange website, especially since many of them will qualify for subsidies to cover much of the cost.
“I've been very pleasantly surprised to see that in some cases they're able to get a lower cost plan than people with the same demographic information in Denver,” Salazar said.
At the non-profit Family and Intercultural Resource Center in Summit County, Health Coverage Guide Jenny Abbott says she’s helping clients enroll in gold-level plans, the second-highest tier of coverage, who will end up paying just $50 a month out of their own pockets.
“They're going to get the health care that they've been putting off for years," Abbott said. "And that is a great thing, and that's why this law was passed.”
But Abbott is also seeing plenty of people who make too much for a subsidy and will have to shoulder the entire burden of the higher healthcare rates in the mountain cities and towns.
“It has nothing to do with the Affordable Care Act because our premiums have always been higher,” Abbott continues. “I think this just highlights a problem that's existed for about 25 years.”
Insurance companies point to numerous reasons why health care costs are higher in the mountains including fewer hospitals, fewer providers and fewer specialists.
“So those things become more expensive,” said Ben Price, executive director of the Colorado Association of Health Plans. “Everything, really, is more expensive in certain mountain areas.”
A state database of health care prices shows that insurance companies spend up to 45 percent more per person for medical care in Garfield and Summit counties compared to the rest of the state.
So, getting your knee replaced in Frisco, for instance, costs nearly twice as much as in Denver. In Glenwood Springs the price is about $12,000 higher than Denver.
It will be up to state Insurance Commissioner Margeurite Salazar to explain those price differences at her public meetings this week.
But Salazar thinks the problem may be temporary.
“Over time, I believe that the rates are going to drop as more people have insurance and they get better preventive care and so we're a healthy community,” Salazar said.