2017 Year in Review: Great health news for Summit County, but at a steep cost | SummitDaily.com

2017 Year in Review: Great health news for Summit County, but at a steep cost

Summit County has the highest life expectancy in the nation, trailed slightly by nearby Pitkin and Eagle counties. That's good news for the High Country, but the study also revealed stark disparities in longevity; in more than 11 percent of counties nationwide, life expectancy has declined since 1980.

Editor's note: The Summit Daily is counting down the top stories of 2017.

2017 was a banner year for physical health in Summit County, which was crowned the healthiest county in the nation in several key categories. However, great health comes at a steep cost, as Summit also attained the dubious distinction of having among the highest health insurance costs in the nation. Looking forward to 2018, Summit seeks to keep up the healthy living while trying to figure how to make it at least somewhat affordable when it is already too expensive for many.

Back in January, we reported how Summit has had the lowest cancer mortality rate in the U.S. for over 30 years, a major factor for its ranking as the healthiest county. The Journal of the American Medical Association released a study showing that Summit has had the lowest rate for cancer-related deaths for every year data was available, from 1980 to 2014. As of 2014, that rate was 70.7 cancer deaths for every 100,000 people. Experts credit the low rate to factors contributing to good health overall, such as low obesity and smoking rates and high education and activity levels.

"In Colorado, in general we have lower risk factors, and in Summit County people exercise more, eat better and aren't as overweight," Jette Hogenmiller, a medical oncology nurse practitioner at St. Anthony Summit Medical Center, said at the time. "It all comes together to make us the ideal environment for health."

“I’d like to believe that this is not going to go on forever, and that there are solutions out there. But a lot of that comes from political will, and political will is created by people voicing their stories and their struggles. ”Tamara DrangsteitExecutive director, FIRC

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While the cancer mortality rate is very low, we reported back in April how malignant cancer was still the leading cause of premature death in the county, according to the Wood Johnson Foundation's annual report on health statistics. The report ranked Summit eighth out of Colorado's 58 counties for health outcomes and ninth for health factors. The county ranked second in social and economic factors, yet ranked low in factors like quality of life and physical environment. The low rankings were due to high cost of living in Summit, especially "severe housing problems." The report also tied Summit for the highest binge-drinking rate in the state with Eagle County.

In May, we reported Summit having the highest life expectancy in the country, with the average Summit resident living to 86.83 years. That number edged out neighboring Pitkin and Eagle counties, with 86.52 and 85.94 years respectively. The findings came from the Journal of the American Medical Association, and the study's co-author Dr. Ali Mokdad once again credited Summit residents for their healthy living habits.

"Summit County has very high education, high income, high access to medical care, the people are physically active, obesity is lower than anywhere else — so you're doing it right," Mokdad said at the time.

However, the health news was not all rosy for Summit this year. The county still has among the highest health insurance rates in the country, and the rates are not anticipated to get lower in 2018. Back in November, County Commissioner Dan Gibbs and State Representative Millie Hamner jointly penned a column in the Summit Daily drawing attention to the "crisis" of health care premium costs in the county and how their efforts to lower costs had been frustrated by inaction and roadblocks at the state and federal levels. We also summarized the various proposals for lowering costs in Summit, including the consolidation of Colorado's many health care rate zones into a single rate for the whole state.

Later in November, we covered how nonprofits and charities are among the hardest hit by high health insurance premiums. Several nonprofit leaders reported their insurance premiums went up by double-digit percentages, and how it ate into their budgets and hurt their ability to help provide the assistance and resources that many lower-income Summit residents rely on.

Family & Intercultural Resource Center executive director Tamara Drangstveit told the Summit Daily that organizations like hers are already at crisis points trying to provide health insurance for their employees.

"I'd like to believe that this is not going to go on forever, and that there are solutions out there," she said at the time. "But a lot of that comes from political will, and political will is created by people voicing their stories and their struggles. Whether it's the state legislators or Congressional representatives, they need to hear from people, about what a crisis this is in Summit County."

In December we reported how Congress' lack of action may cause a lapse in funding for the Children's Health Plus Plan (CHP+), putting over 600 Summit children at risk for losing health insurance. Commissioner Gibbs was among several local officials raising the alarm on the issue.

"We have some of the highest health insurance premiums in the country," he said at the time, "and combine that with the lack of coverage for the folks, and we're facing a catastrophic situation."

Since that story, Colorado lawmakers voted to use state funds to extend the program through March, but the long-term future of CHP+ remains unknown.

Overall, 2017 offered Summit a lot to be proud of in the health department, but the affordability issue will continue to be in the forefront of the conversation. Looking forward to early 2018, the Summit Daily will run a multi-part series about longevity in Summit County — why we have the longest-living people, who they are and how they live, as well as seeing how socioeconomic issues factor into the overall health picture. The series will try to explain what makes Summit the "healthy city upon a hill" and seek answers to a question asked since the dawn of humanity: How do we live longer, better lives? Stay tuned.

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