Colorado Health Institute survey reveals how mountain communities were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic
Research director: 'The social safety net held during the pandemic’
By now, most individuals probably know how their lives and health have changed since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Colorado Health Institute’s health access survey for 2021 puts those changes in black and white.
The report’s findings were rolled out during a webinar Wednesday, Oct. 27. Jeff Bontrager, director of research and evaluation for the institute, said this year’s survey garnered much more interest compared to surveys in previous years.
According to Bontrager, close to 10,500 Colorado households filled out this year’s survey, which was live from February through June and was available in English and Spanish. The organization contracted NORC, an independent social research organization at the University of Chicago, to choose Colorado addresses at random, and those residents filled out the survey online or over the phone.
The survey’s findings were divided up into 10 focus areas for the state, and the state was divided up into various geographic areas, too.
One of the most notable findings for the Interstate 70 mountain corridor was related to insurance coverage.
During the webinar, Bontrager said the state’s Medicaid program, also known as Health First Colorado, kept individuals across the state covered during the pandemic.
“Between 2019 to 2021, we saw a significant increase in the percentage and number of Coloradans who were covered through Health First Colorado,” he said.
The report states that in 2019, nearly 19% of the state’s population was insured through Medicaid but that 2021 saw a jump. This year, the survey found that nearly 25% of the state’s population was insured through Medicaid, the largest jump since 2009. That means one in four Coloradans are insured through Medicaid.
“What we think is happening here is the fact that during the federally declared public health emergency, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of people stayed on Medicaid coverage because states were required to keep people enrolled … regardless if their eligibility changed during that time period,” Bontrager said.
For the mountain corridor, the jump was nearly proportional. The organization’s geographic profile reported that in 2019, nearly 17% of residents in mountain communities along I-70 were insured through Medicaid, a figure that jumped to nearly 22% by 2021. The mountain corridor includes Summit, Eagle, Garfield, Grand and Pitkin counties.
Overall, the state had one of its lowest churn rates, meaning the lowest number of people who lost, switched or gained coverage. Regionally, the mountain corridor had one of the highest churn rates at 17.2%. The report cites lost employer coverage and finding a better plan as the most popular reasons for a change in coverage.
Bontrager said it was good news that more people were enrolling in Medicaid rather than not getting coverage, but he noted that mountain communities had a higher uninsured rate than in other areas of the state at 10.2%. The statewide uninsured rate is nearly 7%, and while it remains unchanged compared to previous years, the report notes that the state’s population grew, meaning more Coloradans are going without coverage.
The report stated that Hispanic and Latino residents as well as those in their 30s and 40s were most likely to be uninsured. While loss of a job is often a big reason for not having health insurance, it was more pronounced this year. About 82% of survey respondents who were not insured reported that the cost of insurance was too high, about 43% reported that a family member who was insured lost or changed their job, and about 26% reported that they didn’t know where to find insurance.
In addition to health insurance coverage, the survey asked questions that focused on how well social safety services held communities together. Bontrager had positive news to share on that front.
“We found evidence in the Colorado Health Access Survey that the social safety net held during the pandemic,” he said. “We have the ability to assess people’s access to food and housing, and what we saw — surprisingly — was a decrease in the percentage of people who indicated they were either food insecure or had housing instability.”
According to the statewide report, counties such as Summit, Grand, Eagle and Pitkin had some of the lowest rates of food insecurity, falling in the 4.3% to 6.6% range. Bontrager said he believes this has to do with all of the community outreach that rallied to keep individuals fed during the worst of the virus.
“We speculate that this could be due to a lot of local outreach that happened within Colorado communities as a result of the pandemic,” Bontrager said. “For example, I recall hearing a lot of school districts actually delivering food to families who rely on free and reduced meal programs.”
In addition, these same counties fared well when it came to housing instability, but the survey results indicated those who rented were more likely to experience issues than owners. For the mountain corridor, the survey found that nearly 5% of respondents were worried about having stable housing in the next two months. Nearly 7% in the mountain area reported eating less than they should due to a lack of housing.
In addition to these topics, the report also asked questions related to mental health, how the pandemic worsened inequities, telemedicine, the affordability of prescription drugs, discrimination in the health care system and more.
Michele Lueck, president and CEO of the institute, said she wanted the survey and all other research by the organization to be used to make policies that can improve the state’s health care arena.
“We are a nonprofit, independent organization that believes good health policy leads to a healthier Colorado,” Lueck said during the webinar. “Every day, we bring research, insight and expertise to leaders across the state because informed decisions, we really believe, lead to better health for all.”
To view the entire report, visit ColoradoHealthInstitute.org.
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