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Garfield County Asks Governor to Intervene on Insurance Rules

Elise Thatcher/Aspen Public Radio

Garfield County wants Governor John Hickenlooper to intervene with the state's new health insurance rules. The county has some of the highest premiums in Colorado under new guidelines. which are part of the Affordable Care Act.

The state agency in charge of the new rules recently visited communities around the state to explain why premiums are so high. But Garfield County officials remain unconvinced.

Editor's note: You can see the state's premium pricing proposal here, and the insurance industry's letter here.

"The balloon has deflated for me on the Affordable Care Act and it’s very disappointing,” says 59-year-old Amy Barr. She lives and works in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Today she's at her office, tucked away in a church basement in Glenwood Springs. She's the Executive Director of United Way for Garfield and Pitkin Counties. Earlier this year, Barr was hoping to sign up for a health insurance plan through Connect for Health, Colorado's statewide program.

"I’m so excited to go to the Colorado site, and my mouth drops open,” she says. “My cheapest would be $850 and it would go up to a $1100 and some and that’s a bronze plan, $5000 deductible. And I said, I can’t afford that myself."

Barr used to pay a fraction of that, with a much lower deductible. She was on her husband’s plan through the Aspen Skiing Company. He doesn't work there anymore, so she's shopping for her own plan.

She really wants coverage, because she's in remission from breast cancer. So Barr started writing emails about her frustration, and sent one to a Garfield County Commissioner.

Credit Elise Thatcher/Aspen Public Radio
Frank Hutfless, Garfield County Attorney, reviews letters from residents concerned about high cost health care premiums.

"What we're really concerned about is the excessive premiums, the discriminatory premiums, that our citizens have been singled out to pay,” says Frank Hutfless, the Garfield County Attorney.

He says the Commissioners received several letters like the one from Amy Barr, so they started looking at why premiums are so high. After looking at a variety of factors, they believe the state's pricing system unfairly shifts the cost of healthcare onto residents in the so-called “resort area.”

That covers Garfield, Pitkin, Eagle, and Summit Counties, named for the ski areas there.

Hutfless believes the state agency in charge of the pricing didn't do enough to find the best plan, and relied on a proposal put together by the insurance industry.

"Simply put, the state took the letter from this lobbying group, put their letterhead on it and submitted it as the state’s proposal,” Hutfless says.

Aspen Public Radio reviewed the two letters, dated a week apart, and found they are nearly identical.

Vince Plymell is with the Colorado Division of Insurance.

“We did review the information that we got from the health insurance carriers, to make sure that it meshed with our understanding and our numbers and what we thought,” says Vince Plymell, with the Colorado Division of Insurance.

“But it was my understanding that we also didn’t have a great deal of time.”

Just a month to figure out prices for health insurance, and officials did not collect any feedback from consumers during that time.

“Altogether the data that we looked at pointed to higher healthcare costs in the mountain areas,” Plymell says.

The Division is gathering comments now, but there are no immediate plans to change high premiums for resort residents. So the Garfield County Commissioners are formally asking Governor John Hickenlooper weigh in.

“We would ask him to direct them to change,” says Hutfless. “Not just look into it, but to establish rating areas that really did not unjustly discriminate. I'm convinced they can do that."

The Governor's office and Insurance Division couldn't comment on that request as of Tuesday afternoon (December 18), saying they hadn't received it yet.  

Garfield County Commissioners are often on the more conservative end of the political spectrum. But County Attorney Frank Hutfless says the move isn't about challenging the hallmark law of a Democratic president.

"Because the program depends upon a large number of people enrolling,” he says. “So everything we're arguing about really is not only beneficial to the citizens. But is actually beneficial to reasonably assure the success of the program.”

Amy Barr, who’s supported Obamacare for years, may end up not being part of it.

“I really think I will end up better on a private plan, than I will on the plan I was hoping for, from the government,” she says.

“And I feel so badly. I’m not signing up and I am defeating the whole purpose of the Affordable Care Act.”

She has less than a week to decide. Next Monday, December 23rd, is the deadline for people signing up for coverage that starts in January.