Summit County nonprofits groan under the weight of skyrocketing health care premiums | SummitDaily.com

Summit County nonprofits groan under the weight of skyrocketing health care premiums

An employee helps sort clothes in the Family & Intercultural Resource Center thrift store Thursday, Sept. 7, in Dillon.

More expensive, fewer benefits.

Every year, that has been the grim reality for Jennifer Schenk, the executive director of the High Country Conservation Center, as she shops for a group health insurance plan for her employees. HC3 currently covers five employees, all of whom are under 35 and healthy. It costs $2,400 a month, or almost $29,000 a year, for their coverage.

That's a double-digit percentage increase from last year. What's more, that same plan will cost 35 percent more next year, widening the huge hole in the small nonprofit's already-tight budget by about $10,000 more. That is $10,000 less that HC3 has to spend on promoting conservation in Summit County, where nature is king.

Schenk's situation is a familiar one to other leaders of Summit County nonprofits. While Summit residents and businesses pay among the highest health insurance premiums in the country, nonprofits face unique challenges of their own. Higher premiums take bigger bites out of smaller budgets. They make it that much harder for these organizations to strike a sustainable balance between serving the community and taking care of their employees, and the situation gets worse very year.

Tamara Drangstveit is executive director of the Family and Intercultural Resource Center (FIRC), a nonprofit providing numerous health and human services to Summit residents, including parental education, cultural integration programs, food banks, housing assistance and other resources. Drangstveit said these services are all in support of FIRC's mission of helping Summit families thrive.

However, the premium increases are taking bigger and bigger chunks out of the budget, leaving behind fewer funds for direct services to the community. Drangstveit said that by her estimation, she could hire five more employees with that money — people who could be out in the community doing good work.

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In fact, one service provided by FIRC is to help Summit families find affordable health insurance, demonstrating how rising premiums are having a domino effect across the community and compounding the problem.

As costs balloon, nonprofits are having a harder time balancing the needs of the community and their employees. In order to try to restore that balance, they try to find cheaper plans. That often means much higher deductibles, lower or no co-pays for doctor visits and much more restrictive networks. Drangstveit and Schenk both estimate that their employees have to fulfill deductibles from $5,000 to $7,000 before insurance starts kicking in. That often results in employees not even bothering to go to a doctor or otherwise use their health benefits unless they have an emergency.

The reality of skyrocketing premiums might make some small businesses wonder whether it is worth providing company health insurance at all. Under the Affordable Care Act, most businesses with fewer than 50 full-time employees are not required to provide any health insurance options. Perfectly legal, no penalty, and a whole lot of money saved.

However, many nonprofit leaders do not see that as an option at all. Reasons include leading by example in the community and the ability to recruit and retain talented staff.

Schenk is resolute on providing those kind of benefits for her employees. "We as an organization (need) to continue to offer the best health insurance to our employees that we can afford." It is an ethical principle she does not intend to give up.

Drangstveit adds that FIRC's mission of helping Summit families informs how they treat their employees. "We're certainly not fulfilling our mission if we can't provide [health insurance] to our own employees. If we can't pay a living wage or offer benefits, we're also doing a disservice to our community."

Jeanne Bistranin is executive director of the Summit Foundation, an umbrella nonprofit organization that helps and supports other nonprofits in the area while providing some health and human support services. She also strongly believes in providing appropriate health benefits for employees, pointing out that not doing so would exacerbate the existing problem.

"Our employees are really important to us," Bistranin says, "and if you don't provide health insurance then you're contributing to the very problem you're trying to solve."

The growing anxiety caused by rising premiums has many Summit residents turning to their elected officials for solutions. They have lauded Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs and State Representative Millie Hamner for their zealous efforts to bring premiums down through legislation and policy.

Recently, Gibbs and Hamner jointly penned a column in the Summit Daily drawing attention to the health care crisis in Summit, informing readers of legislative efforts to lower premiums and proposing policy goals for 2018. These goals include a stronger push toward consolidating Colorado's nine geographic rate zones into a single zone, as well as bringing more transparency into health care costs and the insurance market.

Another idea that intrigues nonprofit leaders is the possibility of state or local health insurance pools. In this arrangement, small businesses could agree to pool their funds together to buy health insurance, sharing benefits and risks across all members. Gibbs says these ideas show some promise, and are still in the planning stages.

However, Gibbs also says that the legislators working on these proposals cannot do so on their own, and need help from Summit residents. "They need to let legislators know there's a groundswell of support from people who think that the status quo isn't working for them, and that we need change."

Nonprofit leaders like Tamara Drangstveit can only hope to see that change is possible, because the situation with premiums is already unsustainable. "People just can't do this anymore," she says. "Change has to happen."

She also echoes Gibb's sentiment that change can only happen if Summit residents speak up.

"I'd like to believe that this is not going to go on forever, and that there are solutions out there," she said. "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."