Summit County seasonal workers struggle under Obamacare changes
Ryan Summerlin March 5, 2014
The countdown to the end of winter comes with a new worry for Summit County seasonal employees this year — navigating the health insurance marketplace.
There are 26 days left to sign up for health insurance this year through Connect for Health Colorado, the online marketplace started in October under the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. March 15 is the deadline to enroll for coverage starting April 1. Open enrollment for 2014 ends March 31, the final date for most people to get coverage this year.
However, many seasonal workers will be employed past March 31, but only until April or May, meaning they will lose their insurance after the enrollment deadline. This “life change event” qualifies for a special enrollment period. In most cases, people have 60 days from the life event — which includes a change in income — to enroll in new coverage.
The Family & Intercultural Resource Center, which recently moved to a new office in Silverthorne, is working with local employers to help navigate the new insurance system. Jenny Abbott, FIRC health coverage guide, said seasonal employees who are about to lose coverage and who are staying in Colorado with no options for continued coverage have a few extra steps to take than most.
“You spend six months somewhere, and then a month spent looking for insurance and trying to change it over, and then have to do it all again six months later. It’s too much trouble. I get it. It’s not easy.”
Full-time snowboard coach at Keystone Resort
These individuals must apply for Medicaid, and if they do not receive an instant denial, must then submit proof of citizenship to Summit County Social Services. FIRC can then meet with these individuals to determine tax credits and help find insurance plans.
For an individual, the Medicaid maximum is $15,282 annually. Not having insurance this year will result in a $95 fine, a penalty that will increase year to year.
“There’s no such thing as $95 insurance,” Abbott said. “The fine doesn’t come with health insurance.”
Alec Meyer, a full-time snowboard coach at Keystone Resort, signed up with the available Vail Resorts plan in the fall when he started work. He said he’ll have been insured through the company for a only a total of five months once he leaves this spring.
“It’s made my life really complicated,” he said. “I’ve been all over and it’s never been an issue. This is a much more complicated landscape.”
Vail Resorts offers medical, dental and vision coverage, and the Vail Resorts Health website states that health insurance benefits remain active through the end of the month in which employment ends. For example, if someone’s last day of work is April 5, insurance coverage will end April 30.
Laura Parquette, spokeswoman for Keystone, issued a Vail Resorts statement about seasonal employment, saying the company has a significant seasonal workforce, and that Vail Resorts is “more generous” than many seasonal employers, offering benefits to full-time seasonal employees once they have reached 750 lifetime service hours with the company, which is usually sometime during an employee’s second season.
The Consolidated Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 1985 (COBRA) allows employees and their covered dependents to continue health coverage under certain circumstances. Vail Resorts said any employee who was enrolled in benefits is eligible for COBRA at the end of the season, and that the company has a large group of employees who use COBRA coverage to ensure they have coverage during off-seasons, during which they may be working for other seasonal employers who do not provide coverage.
Previously, Meyer bought private health insurance, enrolling on his own when it wasn’t possible to have coverage through an employer.
“I always had my own coverage,” he said. “I think it’s crazy not to have it.”
Once he qualified for full-time Vail Resorts benefits, Meyer said, it was not much cheaper than what he was already paying, but he did receive better coverage.
His insurance now costs about $200 monthly, a price Meyer doesn’t know if he will be able to get on the marketplace.
“I don’t know if I will qualify to buy private again, or extend it with COBRA, or anything,” he said. “I tried to do all of the right steps, but I’m up the creek. I have no idea what’s going to happen.”
Meyer said financially, it makes sense to pay the fine for not having insurance. But for him, “$20,000 for a broken leg is not an option. No matter what I will acquire coverage somehow. But I have no idea what that looks like two months from now,” he said.
Meyer has been working seasonal jobs for a few years now, he said, and is concerned that even on his “measly income” he makes too much to qualify for the tax credits.
“I’m confident I can find coverage, that’s not the problem; it’s if I can find something for under $300 a month that is worth it, that’s the big question.”
Abbott said the local social services office is up to three months behind, so she is encouraging people who are seasonal and losing insurance in a few months to start the process now, just in case, so there is no lapse in coverage.
“I’m here to help, that’s my role, but I can’t control the outcomes,” she said. “I’m not a tax auditor. I can’t do it for them.”
The Vail Resorts statement said, “We are not sure what the impact of the state health exchange will be on our COBRA enrollment. There are less expensive plan options on the exchanges, but they also provide lower levels of coverage. Whether people elect to move on to exchange plans or stay on COBRA may depend upon where employees spend their summers.”
For example, employees staying in Summit County, where the exchange rates are the highest in the country, might make different choices than if they were spending summers in lower-cost regions.
“You spend six months somewhere, and then a month spent looking for insurance and trying to change it over, and then have to do it all again six months later,” Meyer said. “It’s too much trouble. I get it. It’s not easy.”
The Family & Cultural Resource Center is located at 251 W. Fourth Ave. in Silverthorne. Call (970) 262-3888 or visit www.summitfirc.org for more information.