High Country, High Costs
Despite — or perhaps because of — Colorado mountain dwellers’ love of hiking, skiing, bicycling and all things physical, health care costs are stubbornly stuck far above average.
Active lives, few providers push up medical costs
Health costs are driven by two main factors: price per unit — say, a doctor’s visit or a heart bypass — times the frequency of those visits. And Pitkin, Garfield, Eagle and Summit counties score poorly on the former and not so great on the latter.
Getting a hip and knee replaced costs about $69,000 in the hospitals in the Colorado mountains, but about $40,000 in metro Denver. Visiting a doctor costs an average of $195 in Boulder, but $301 in the mountain resort cities.
And mountain resort residents are using some services much more often than average, particularly visits to specialists and imaging tests such as MRIs and CT scans. Specialist visits per patient per year average $260 in Boulder, but $602 in the mountain resorts.
Why health coverage can cost more than housing
How did western Colorado reach a point where for some people, health care costs more than a large mortgage?
It has to do with the idiosyncrasies of Obamacare, but it also has to do with the American health care system and various attempts to make it either uniquely our own or more like the rest of the world’s, say health policy experts.
The United States spends 18% of its gross domestic product on health care — way more than any other nation. And by many measures, the U.S. has worse outcomes, despite spending much more.
Mountain health care costs decoded
Data showed that in places such as Aspen, Vail and Glenwood Springs, health costs in many categories were double what they were in places such as Denver, Boulder and Colorado Springs.
Outpatient care per person per year was $2,022 in Zone 9, but $1,075 in Colorado overall in 2014. People here were using MRIs and other imaging services, as well as pathology and lab work at three times the rate of the rest of Colorado.
Experts warn to beware effects of dismantling Obamacare
Health experts in the mountain resorts and in metro Denver warn critics to be careful what they wish for — tossing out all or part of the Affordable Care Act can make things a lot worse.
Year after year, health care costs rise about twice as fast as the cost of living. A consensus of studies has suggested that without the ACA, health care costs in the United States would be 19% of gross domestic product, instead of the 18% it is today.
The Affordable Care Act has made it possible for 20 million additional Americans to be covered by health insurance.
Justifying care’s costs
Hospital bills in the High Country are higher than in metro Denver — but that’s inevitable anywhere there is a small population base, say hospital executives.
The hospitals have to be big enough for the crush of ski season, when the number of people in the communities triples, and there are crazy numbers of fractures, sprains and concussions.
But with insurance premiums in Pitkin, Routt, Summit, Eagle and Garfield counties 50% to 100% higher than they are on the Front Range, many High Country residents are wondering whether the hospital bills are justified — or whether the amenities have to be so nice.
Faces of Hope
This series was commissioned by Building Hope Summit County, a communitywide initiative to create a more coordinated, effective and responsive mental health system that promotes emotional health, reduces stigma and improves access to care and support for everyone in Summit County.
Frisco mother still coming to terms with her son’s 2006 suicide
A photo album records the arc of the life of Betty Claybrook’s oldest child, Josh. It opens with a birth certificate from St. Joseph’s Hospital on which his tiny, delicate footprints are stamped. He was born at 8:40 in the morning on May 21,1979. HSubsequent pages in the album reveal familiar moments in the lives of mountain kids living in a then-blue collar Summit County: Josh in snow pants as a toddler, with his baby sister Jamie by his side. Josh skiing off small cliffs, riding snowmobiles and riding mountain bikes on family camping trips to Moab. Later, there are pictures of Josh with his own sons Elijah and Peyton, and Josh hoisting his niece Cynthia into the air when she was a toddler. In the photos, everyone is youthful and often smiling.
Toward the end of the album are a handful of photos from Blackfoot, Idaho. That’s where Josh Claybrook took his life at age 27 on a summer day in June 2006.
After bipolar diagnosis, Summit County woman rebuilds a life
Marilyn Hogan is a dynamic, beautiful, and accomplished professional. She’s been married to her husband for 32 years and has three talented, successful children, two of whom spent much of their childhood ski racing in Summit County.
Few know that Marilyn’s long trajectory of success came on the heels of deep struggle. Prior to moving to Summit County in 1982, she had been a stay-at-home mom living in Woodland Park with her first husband and two sons. After a period in her early 20s of significant family stress that followed the birth of her second son, she experienced a manic episode. She was hospitalized for three days, given a diagnosis of manic depression and medications, and sent home. Shortly after, her then husband left the state with her two children, leaving Marilyn without any money and a broken down Jeep.
A brother’s death put Summit County woman on to a path to enlightenment
Emily Steingart appears to be living an idyllic mountain-town life. In between juggling several side gigs in marketing and communications, she’s busy co-launching a new yoga retreat business called GOYO Adventures. Last summer, she worked as a production assistant for an Aspen photoshoot for Fabletics, an active-wear clothing line founded by Kate Hudson. Her Instagram feed is a catalog of enviable adventures.
Among the long, happy Instagram feed, though, one photo stands out in stark contrast: a quiet image of eight balloons lifting into a dark blue sky at Massachusetts Skaket Beach.
Each year, on Emily’s beloved older brother Mike’s birthday, her family reunites at a Cape Cod beach and releases balloons in the air. Mike died 11 years ago, on Dec. 11, 2005, as the result of an accidental overdose.
Climbing out of the darkness
In the summer of 2016, Breckenridge local and climber Sam Higby completed the demanding and spectacular Evolution Traverse. A high alpine, continuous ridge traverse that links numerous peaks along the Evolution Basin in the heart of California’s Sierra Nevada, the route requires continuous mixed fourth class scrambling and fifth class climbing across nearly 9 miles of technical terrain, much of it with significant exposure at 13,000 feet.
“It was the next day, in a coffee shop, still too tired and sore to eat or sit on a toilet, that I had the thought, ‘I am enough,’” he says. “I’d never had that thought in my life. I still don’t know what that means entirely.”
Why would it take until age 36 for a thoughtful, intelligent and talented climber, craftsman and skier to have his first powerful epiphany about his own self worth? As a child, Sam was the victim of abuse in a deeply religious household. Like so many children who experience such devastating early trauma, it left painful scars and a damaged sense of identity.
Breckenridge couple learns to live with pain of son’s suicide
For Cary and Marsha Cooper, healing from the loss of their son, Glenn, has meant focusing on the exuberant and vital life he lived instead of the way in which he died at age 44. Each year, on the anniversary of his suicide, they walk to a beloved spot on the Sallie Barber trail. It’s a place they’ve hiked to countless times during their 20 years in Breckenridge, sometimes with him by their side. They feel his spirit here, and they spend time reflecting on the generous life he lived and the countless moments of joy they shared. They think about how much they loved him, and how much they miss him. And then, they try to move on.