Panel looks at health-care problems

Small businesses facing financial challenges to providing coverage

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— The cost of health care is the No. 1 problem small businesses in the Yampa Valley face, said panelists in an hour-long discussion at Economic Summit 2002 Thursday.

Unfortunately, it also is one of the most difficult to address.

"I wish there was a simple solution for this problem, where we could do one bill and solve the problem," said state Sen. Jack Taylor, one of the five panelists. "But believe me, it's not that simple."

In front of an audience of about two dozen conference participants, panelists offered ideas for why health insurance for small businesses is so expensive and for how the problem might be tackled.

The problems the panel considered included overuse of medical services, state and federal mandates that tell insurers what health plans must cover, shortcomings of third-party payers such as Medicaid and Medicare, increases in prescription drug costs and medical inflation.

"Each of these issues really, really adds to this boiling pot of increasing cost," said panelist Linda Fossi-Williams, owner of Sleeping Giant Insurance Agency.

Fossi-Williams said residents of Steamboat Springs have been lucky in the past decade, as a strong economy has made it possible for small businesses to provide health insurance. But, she said, that luck could change.

In Steamboat Springs, about 75 percent of employers offer health insurance now, compared to about 65 percent in Colorado and 55 percent nationwide, Fossi-Williams said.

However, there are only five insurance providers in the area, she said, and lack of competition can increase costs.

Most of the businesses in Steamboat Springs are small, Fossi-Williams said. For small group plans that cover between one and 50 employees, expenses can be high, which discourages businesses from providing coverage.

One of the reasons that health-care costs are so high is that people go to doctors, especially specialized doctors such as orthopedic surgeons, too often, panelists said. The extra visits to expensive doctors have to be paid by someone, and so insurance premiums and other costs increase.

Taylor said public education about the true costs of insurance is one way to drive the costs back down.

People need to be responsible and not go to the doctor each time they or their children "get the sniffles," Taylor said. Once people understand how their medical needs are affecting the health-care system, they might make efforts to change.

Legislative mandates can be costly to health care, panelists said. Tim Jackson, the Colorado director for the National Federation of Independent Business, used Senate Bill 131, which recently made it to the House floor but then died, as the "mother of all mandates."

This bill, he said, could have made insurance plans cover some 300 new health problems, including caffeine addiction, insomnia, job stress and jet lag. That sort of mandate, he said, would add 10 percent to the cost of health care.

And increasing cost means fewer people will be insured, Jackson said.

"We're literally pricing people out of the small group market altogether," he said, and he compared health-care plans to cars. The only plans small groups can buy now, he said, would fall into the "Cadillac" category.

"Some of us have to drive a Ford or Chevy," he said. "We have to keep Fords and Chevys on the market."

Audience members were eager to participate in the discussion. During the question and answer period, several said they were dismayed with the state of the current health-care system. Some said they were dismayed with the panel's discussion.

"With all due respect to the panel, I would suggest that you're really kind of dancing around the edges of this," said John Grassby, a local lawyer who has experience in health-care reform. "Obviously the system is not working. It requires fundamental and radical rethinking of what we're doing here."

The panel members said they agreed with Grassby but the fundamental changes he was talking about would require time.

"It is huge, and I absolutely agree with you," Fossi-Williams said. "We're all as frustrated as you are."

Sue Birch, the executive director of the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association, said changes have to be made or the future is grim.

"My fear is that in the next five to 10 years, our health-care system will, in fact, implode," she said.

But, she said in response to Grassby, progress can begin within the current system. "We've got to keep this freighter moving forward while we try to turn it."

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