Top Stories of 2016: Health care still a sticking point in Summit (No. 4)
December 28, 2016
Achieving a workable health care system in Summit County and Colorado's resort region remained a bitter conundrum in 2016.
The entire country is struggling with many of the same questions, but the difference in the Western Slope is that insurance rates and hospital visits are still some of the nation's highest, and there's presently no clear solution in sight. What a new administration in Washington, D.C., might mean for the Affordable Care Act (aka "Obamacare") now only two years into full implementation only adds to the uncertainty.
Following a broader national health trend of consolidation, Centura Health announced the purchase of the High Country Healthcare physician group in late 2015. The construction of a new facility and extended collaboration between Centura and St. Vincent Hospital in Leadville were other local health care developments this year.
Circumstances with providers stayed fluid in the High Country as well, with some heavy hitters exiting the local market, while still others jumped in feet first. Kaiser Permanente settled on expansion into the mountains in summer 2015 and followed through when it opened its doors at the Basecamp retail strip in Frisco, in addition to Edwards, in January. That came on the heels of the confirmation late last year that the nonprofit cooperative Colorado HealthOP would fold for the 2016 insurance year.
This blend of events effectively made Kaiser the low-cost insurance provider in Summit, though pricing varies greatly plan to plan, and a relationship with the Centura-operated St. Anthony Summit Medical Center — the area's only emergency facility — is still nonexistent. Newcomer Bright Health will hope to give Kaiser a run for its money in the years to come with a unique business model that includes an exclusive partnership with Centura.
UnitedHealthcare's acquisition of former independent provider Rocky Mountain Health Plans, in addition to UHC's departure from the state health exchange, left individual insurance consumers with even fewer options for the 2017 coverage year. In the meantime, Amendment 69 was placed on the November ballot through a grassroots effort to produce a single-payer health care system for the entire state known as ColoradoCare. Voters resoundingly defeated it by well over 3-to-1.
Today, only Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield as well as Cigna endure to compete with Kaiser and Bright Health for Summit residents. All the while health premiums continued to swell by an average of 20 percent across Colorado, and as much as 46 percent in some areas. Deductibles also ticked up for the upcoming year.
"I couldn't be more disappointed," Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs told the Daily earlier this month. "This continues to be a huge breaking point for many individuals and many families. The state of Colorado cannot continue to sustain itself with these huge increases."
Gibbs, who remained neutral on ColoradoCare throughout the election, became an outspoken regional health care advocate early in the year. The former state senator and representative took his case all the way down to the Capitol this spring and helped herald a bill in the General Assembly to produce a study examining what drives the cost of care based on geography. House Bill 16-1336 eventually passed and Gov. Hickenlooper signed it into law at a ceremony in Frisco in May.
The results of the study ultimately missed the mark and didn't contribute much in the way of identifying actual costs of specific procedures, say, in Summit versus the Front Range. But it was fodder for future bills, and Gibbs is already back lobbying down in Denver to further the mountain region's agenda in the upcoming legislative session to reduce costs, or at least spread the burden across the state.
Still, the Jan. 31 deadline to obtain health coverage to avoid the federal tax penalty looms. How long that system will stay in place once the next president takes the reins is anyone's guess. Whatever happens, though, Summit County will be closely watching.
"In Colorado, we have an opportunity to move forward with reform," said Gibbs. "I don't think we can wait on the federal government. We really need meaningful legislation."