High Country, High Costs

In this five-part series from 2017, we explore health care costs that are stubbornly stuck far above average.

Active lives, few providers push up medical costs

Chelsea Self / Post Independent |

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.

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Why health coverage can cost more than housing

Chelsea Self / Post Independent |

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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