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Would A Single State Region Ease Insurance Costs? New Bill Would Study It In Colorado

Colorado General Assembly

Health insurance premiums can vary widely in Colorado depending on where you live — it's just one of the factors health insurance companies use to calculate prices. Mountain regions continue to have some of the highest premiums in the country. At the statehouse, House Bill 16-1336 [.pdf] would look at treating the entire state as one region, rather than continuing to group regions separately.

"Our current insurance payment of $1,508 a month is equivalent to our mortgage payment. We can't afford it," said Richard Backe, a Garfield County small-business owner. "There are numerous people in the mountain district with the same story. We are the healthiest counties in the state, and we have the highest insurance rates."

Representative Bob Rankin (R-Carbondale), one of the main sponsors of the bipartisan measure, said he's typically not a fan of lawmakers passing bills to study things.

"It's usually just a way to justify money, but if we knew what to do, if we knew the answer we'd be in here with a bill telling you to do it right now and begging you to do it," said Rankin. "We tried to do that, and we don't know. That's why we need a short intense study."

Sponsors said health insurance premiums grew almost 10 percent in Colorado for 2016, but in mountain areas it was 25 percent. On the flipside, others worry that using a single geographical area wouldn't lower premiums but would simply force people in other parts of Colorado to subsidize the high costs in the mountain areas.

"The bill is pretty limited in scope," said Representative Kim Ransom (R-Littleton) "I've got people in my district that are quoting me some of the same rates we heard from people here, $1,500, $1,800 a month. That's here in the metro area so obviously there are probably some other components."

A separate group is already examining just that. The Colorado Commission on Affordable Health Care is studying how to lower health care costs and looking at cost drivers such as pharmaceuticals and hospitals along with pricing transparency and competition. The group will give recommendations to the legislature in late 2017.

Democratic Summit County commissioner Dan Gibbs said his constituents need recommendations more urgently, which is why he's backing HB 16-1336 to look specifically at lowering the geographic disparity in health insurance premiums.

"I've heard some rumors around the capitol… 'oh yeah, you mountain communities, why should we subsidize your high cost of health insurance?' Well, we feel like we're subsidizing your budget. When you look how much money comes from our communities, a recent analysis reflected $4.8 billion just during ski time," Gibbs said.

Colorado's insurance commissioner, Marguerite Salazar, would conduct the new study. Her office is taking a neutral position, but she has expressed concerns that changing to one geographic region for insurance premium calculations would put some small insurance carriers out of business because they couldn't compete statewide. Gov. John Hickenlooper is still monitoring the bill.

"Obviously the disparity in costs in health care is not new," Hickenlooper said. "For many, many, many years people in smaller communities have had a more difficult time accessing health care."

He said the idea of one statewide region is a possible solution.

"But it also has potential unintended consequences, so we're trying to work through what those potential unintended consequences are and make sure that this is something that overall would have a positive benefit."

If the bill makes it through the statehouse, the insurance premiums study would be complete by August 2016.

Editor's Note: This post was updated to correct the spelling of Richard Backe's name. We regret the error.

Bente Birkeland has been reporting on state legislative issues for KUNC and Rocky Mountain Community Radio since 2006. Originally, from Minnesota, Bente likes to hike and ski in her spare time. She keeps track of state politics throughout the year but is especially busy during the annual legislative session from January through early May.
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