Study: Many locals uninsured

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— A new study released by a statewide association dedicated to helping all Coloradans attain full insurance coverage proves what many in Routt County already know: Many people in the county are uninsured.

The Colorado Coalition for the Medically Underserved, comprised of more than 200 organizations and individuals, recently published the 2001 Health Data Book, which revealed that almost 11 percent of people in Routt County in 2000 lacked medical coverage.

That number doesn't surprise Jan Fritz, who sees the hardship faced by uninsured people in the county on a daily basis.

Fritz, director of Home Care and Hospitality with the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association, said a combination of rising insurance costs and a depressed economy have left more people in need of the VNA's services.

"We've definitely seen an increase in the age group under 45," she said. "They've lost their insurance or couldn't afford it in the first place, and they come to us for help."

Many people in the Steamboat Springs area work seasonal jobs that do not usually promise medical coverage, she said, and so they run the risk of finding themselves injured or sick without health coverage.

"They work two or three jobs," Fritz said. "They're crossing their fingers that nothing happens to them."

Many self-employed Routt County residents can no longer afford premiums that increased by 15 percent to 40 percent and have no choice but to go without, she said.

A good economy that offered no relief to high insurance premiums has now been replaced by a bad economy that will certainly do nothing to remedy the situation, she said.

"It's a ripple effect," she said. "It's not as high as Denver, but we're seeing more of these people without coverage in our community."

The study arrived at the 10.8 percent figure by linking the percentage of uninsured people to the percentage of unemployed people in Routt County.

The study provided two additional figures, however, that offered higher rates of uninsured people in the county.

A second estimate, based on demographic features such as poverty, raised the rate to 15.1 percent.

A third estimate, based on a small survey of adults who estimated the uninsured rate in Routt County, revealed a 19.6 percent rate of uninsured Routt County residents.

LIFT-UP of Routt County provides medical and dental assistance, but people tend to ask for help with more pressing needs such as rent, utilities and food, said David Freseman, LIFT-UP executive director.

"It's pretty stable," Freseman said. "I haven't seen it being more or less intermittent."

Requests for financial assistance with simple dental work are surprisingly more frequent than with medical expenditures, he said.

But some people just need enough money to get an appointment with a doctor, he said.

People who go to LIFT-UP for help with dental and medical work can present vouchers for the service, which are then paid by LIFT-UP, Freseman said.

Much of the funding for dental and medical work comes from the Salvation Army's Christmas Kettle Campaign, he said, but the need has nearly exhausted the funding for the year.

Yampa Valley Medical Center tries to accommodate its uninsured patients, YVMC Chief Financial Officer Frank May said.

The hospital sets up payment plans that help to alleviate expenses, he said.

Many people who lose their health insurance often decide to forgo hospital visits, he said.

"We haven't seen a significant impact in the number of uninsured patients who come to us, but we are working with those without insurance," he said.

The 2001 Health Data Book serves as the authoritative source for information about the state of Colorado's public health and provides a reference for current health-care trends, said Anita Wesley, on staff with the Colorado Coalition for the Medically Underserved.

"It's considered one of the best sources for finding out about what's going on with the health care and financing systems in the state," Wesley said.

Wesley suggested the figures be used with caution, as the third estimate of uninsured people, based on a small sampling of Routt County residents, was interpretative.

The coalition aims to reach everyone in the state with access to health insurance by 2007 through private and public means.

The rising costs of medical coverage complicates its goal, Wesley said, but current circumstances only serve to strengthen the coalition's resolve about seeing its vision become reality.

"It certainly makes it more challenging," she said. "When the cost of health insurance didn't drop during times of economic prosperity, it can be discouraging when we're now in a economic downturn."

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