Summit Daily editorial: Live long and prosper? It comes with a high cost
September 26, 2017
Summit is one of the healthiest counties in the country. We're No. 1 in the nation for life expectancy, living for 86.83 years on average. We have the lowest cancer mortality rate anywhere. We're one of the thinnest counties in the nation's thinnest state, with an obesity rate of only 13 percent. We don't smoke very much and Livestrong.com recently named us as the most active county in the U.S.
By many measures, we're a hale and hearty group — just like our neighbors in Pitkin, Garfield and Eagle counties.
So why do we have a higher percentage of uninsured residents than the state average? Why do we pay some of the highest health insurance premiums in the country? Why are those premiums soon expected to increase by around 27 percent? And then there's the big question — why is there precious little political will at our state capitol to do anything about it?
For starters, hospitals in Summit and other mountain counties face almost no competition and often charge more than double what you would find in Denver. In some cases, we pay 300 to 500 percent more in the mountains than we would on the Front Range. Regardless of where we actually seek out medical attention — the savviest consumers among us often make the trip down the hill for cheaper services — those higher costs are passed on to Summit residents in the form of outlandish premiums that often approach mortgage-payment proportions.
Those higher premiums then create a feedback loop: Young, healthy people — the "young invincibles" — forgo insurance because it's too expensive. That then shrinks the pool of insured people and further drives up rates, especially for those with pre-existing conditions.
But the rise in health care costs in the Colorado mountain region isn't just a consequence of Obamacare's flaws, according to Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, a former Kaiser Permanente executive and current gubernatorial candidate.
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Instead, she has said it is our expectation that we will hike, bike and ski our way into our 80s that results in higher costs. It turns out we're the victims of our own active lifestyles.
Yes, we live longer in our little mountain valleys, but our impressive longevity is made possible in part by those pricey hip and knee replacements that keep us on the slopes.
Still, it seems fundamentally unfair that Colorado's mountain residents pay far more for health care than our arguably less-healthy Front Range counterparts.
So what's the solution?
One idea floated by elected officials like Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs is to consider a single insurance zone in Colorado. (Summit, along with Eagle, Garfield and Pitkin counties, is in the so-called rural mountain resort region, one of several zones that carve up the state.)
While the idea sounds equitable on its face, some believe it would be potentially disastrous.
A state task force headed up by Lynne last year concluded that while a single zone would result in 19 percent lower premiums for mountain counties like Summit, it would mean significantly higher premiums for those on the Front Range. The task force also warned that a one-zone solution could force insurance companies to leave the state, which would result in less competition and higher prices for all. And while a single zone would create an enrollment rush in the mountains, experts say many residents in low-cost zones would likely flee the system as a result of heftier premiums.
The task force shot down the idea without really offering up an alternative other than the status quo.
In the meantime, we'll continue to support bills like the one sponsored by Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, D-Steamboat Springs, and Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, during the last legislative session. House Bill 17-1235 would have temporarily expanded the criteria for who is eligible for a subsidy to help offset the price of inflated premiums.
Unfortunately, the bill, which passed the House, couldn't make it out of the Senate's Republican-controlled State Affairs Committee, aka "The Kill Committee."
It's a perfect storm of dysfunction: An inability to control medical costs, a medicalized population hell-bent on living to 100, a state that picks winners and losers when it comes to premiums and a national political system that only seeks to destroy what few strides have been made.
While 20 million more people are insured as a result of Obamacare, our local leaders are rightly alarmed that the disparities in our state system are hurting our most vulnerable populations, the ones who maybe won't be living into their 80s without proper care.
Mitsch Bush summed it up well: "We have a crisis for those who are cost-burdened, having to make a decision between paying their rent or their health insurance. That's not the type of choice people should have to be making."
Is anyone having regrets on voting down Amendment 69?
The Summit Daily editorial board includes publisher Meg Boyer, editor Ben Trollinger, reporter Kevin Fixler and two community members, Jen Schenk and Jonathon Knopf.