Chamber works to ease pain of health insurance cost

Partisan issues have stalled several health care reform bills the Legislature has addressed this session, which is bad news for most Craig businesses that are unable to provide their employees with insurance because of skyrocketing costs.

"It's been a real uphill battle to get doctors that health insurance companies would even cover, and when you get in a rural area, it's even worse," Craig Chamber of Commerce Director Cathy Vanatta said. Vanatta has been working for insurance reform to aid employees of small businesses and their families.

State Rep. Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver, is working on health insurance reform in the Legislature. He estimates 700,000 Coloradoans are without coverage and blames the lack of reforms on partisan politics.

Republicans blocked several health care reforms and are backing cuts in preventative care.

The issue hits hardest those who make too much money to qualify for public aid, but not enough to pay for health insurance.

A full-coverage individual policy for a young female in good health can cost $1,600 a year.

There are still a number of bills moving through the Legislature that should limit the rising cost of health insurance. One would reduce the number of state-mandated items insurers must cover. Supporters of the bill believe that it will reduce costs, while opponents argue that no proof of cost reductions has been offered.

Vanatta is hoping some legislative action will reduce the pain of increasing health insurance costs, but isn't waiting for that to happen.

"We go through this every year," she said. "They get down to the wire and they just don't have anything good to offer."

Vanatta's moving now on a plan that could offer the nearly 400 Chamber members discounted health insurance now.

"I'm still waiting to hear the details," she said. "It would be basically full coverage insurance that's discounted to Chamber members."

The discount could be up to 20 percent.

Insurance agent Kyle Revelle is working with Vanatta on a small group plan that would benefit area businesses.

"We're looking for some coverage for the small group market -- businesses with one to 49 employees," he said. "That's the tough market right now. We just don't have the companies that will write those policies."

The Chamber offered a similar plan several years ago, but was dropped when the insurance carrier pulled out of state, a problem many Western Slope businesses are facing now that there are only three carriers on this side of the state.

The challenge is similar statewide, where 12 carriers remain where more than 80 used to operate.

The plan Vanatta is working to get would take all Chamber-affiliated businesses that signed up and their employees. Pre-existing conditions would not be a factor.

Many insurance companies currently only provide individual coverage in a preferred provider network, something that's difficult, if not impossible, in a rural community.

"That forces those covered to drive to Grand Junction or Denver to find doctors that are covered by the insurance companies," Vanatta said.

Worse is that many companies won't even cover individuals who have any pre-existing conditions -- including mild forms of depression, Revelle said.

Vanatta estimates more than half of Moffat County's population is without medical coverage.

"A lot of it is getting people to sit at the table and talk about this," she said.

She hopes to have a plan to present to Chamber members by the end of this month.

"I do feel there will be something," she said. "It's not going to be the best solution, but it will be better than what we've got."

The plan would be geared toward businesses with fewer than 50 employees -- the ones hardest hit by rising insurance costs.

Lt. Gov. Jane Norton cited studies that show 70 percent of small businesses experienced rate hikes of 20 percent or more on their health insurance this year and premiums are expected to rise 15 percent annually causing 82,000 people to leave the small group market in 2003.

Fifteen percent of rising health care costs is attributed to government mandates and regulation. Norton said that is the portion the Legislature can fix in its attempt to control costs.

Revelle isn't holding his breath.

"There are tons of bills on the floor and I'm hearing at this point that none are looked at favorably by the Legislature," he said. "We do need some changes but I don't see anything on the horizon at this point."

Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031, Ext. 210 or by e-mail at ccurrie@craigdailypress.com.

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