Costly health insurance driving workers, employers away

By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon

Many Coloradans with jobs say they can no longer afford health insurance, a new analysis from the Colorado Health Access Survey has found.

Nearly one-third of Coloradans more than 1.5 million people are either uninsured or underinsured, according to the initial survey results that were released in November.

New analysis shows that 85 percent of uninsured Coloradans say they dont have health insurance because its too expensive.

Job loss and poverty used to be the key causes for poor health coverage. But the landscape in Colorado is changing dramatically. Today, a good job no longer guarantees affordable health insurance.

Nearly 58 percent of the uninsured in Colorado have jobs. Of that group, more than half said they were offered insurance, but turned it down because it was too expensive.

Some employers may also be dropping benefits. In just two years, from 2009 to 2011, 163,000 fewer working Coloradans had employer-sponsored insurance. The number of people who lost insurance is greater than all the people who work for Colorados top 25 businesses.

I really see this as a wake-up call, said Dr. Ned Calonge, president and CEO of The Colorado Trust, which is funding the survey of more than 10,000 households across the state every other year through at least 2017.

Wheres the tipping point where its just unaffordable for everyone and we have to start making emergency policy decisions? he said. These are people who are working, but still cant afford or are unwilling to pay for insurance.

Lack of health insurance affects everyone because when uninsured people get sick, they usually seek care in hospital emergency departments, where costs are the highest. One-third of Colorados uninsured people said they usually go to ERs rather than seeking less expensive preventive care from a primary care provider.

In addition to hiking costs for everyone, uninsured people are sacrificing their health. Among the uninsured:

  • Half put off seeing a dentist
  • Forty percent delayed or skipped a trip to the doctor
  • One quarter did not pick up prescribed medication

As a result of delaying or forgoing care, about one quarter of uninsured Coloradans described their health status as fair or poor the lowest ranking compared with 10 percent of Coloradans who are adequately insured.

Calonge said other issues like the economy and jobs have diverted the attention of policymakers from health challenges. But rising costs, the growing population of uninsured people and an impending ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court may soon put health issues back on the front burner.

Calonge says that no matter how the justices rule, the survey results show that Colorado has to proceed with a health exchange and policies that boost health coverage.

We understand the issues enough and need to start making policy decisons that will keep us from hitting emergency levels, he said.

If more healthy people opt out of health insurance, that leaves sicker, more expensive people in coverage pools, thus sending insurance costs even higher.

Already, the survey found that many healthy people dont value insurance. Sick people are most willing to pay more. But many healthy people are opting out altogether, saying the premiums simply cost too much.

Among the lowest-income uninsured Coloradans, 75 percent were willing to pay something for health insurance. But, the survey found that as incomes rose, people were not necessarily willing to devote a large chunk of their paycheck to health insurance premiums.

Analysts continue to mine the health survey data. Next, theyll be looking at how being uninsured affects people from different ethnic and racial groups, along with age and gender. They will also be probing ER use. So far, it appears that even insured people are overusing ERs, that perhaps they see them as convenient clinics rather than places of last resort.

The Colorado Health Institute conducts the health access survey and analyzes the data. The survey of 10,000 Colorado households is weighted to represent the more than 5 million people who live in Colorado. The Colorado Trust has pledged to spend more than $4.5 million on the survey to provide critical information to policymakers on health challenges the state faces.