It’s not just the poor who can’t afford health care

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Health care costs are quickly outpacing income at almost every level for residents of Colorado.

A series of workshops throughout the state will address the findings of an affordability study conducted by the Colorado Center on Law and Policy and the Colorado Consumer Health Initiatives.

The groups will be in Colorado Springs at 6 p.m. July 30 at the Gay and Lesbian Fund, 315 E. Costilla St.

“Really, I was surprised at how very little discretionary income most families have,” said DeDe De Pircin, executive director of the consumer health initiative. “And if someone gets sick, and the out-of-pockets costs rise, they just don’t have the money left over to handle it.”

Even families who earn six figures cannot always afford health care without cutting back somewhere else in their budgets. And lower income families simply have no room to pay more for health care.

“What we found is that many families sacrifice savings, education and child care in order to pay health care bills,” said Elisabeth Arenales, one of the co-authors of the study. “That has to be taken into consideration in the policy debates.”

Health care reform often centers on the cost of premiums, but it needs to examine the effect of out-of-pocket costs on families’ budgets, she said.

“Currently, there are some talks of limiting out of pocket to 10 (percent) or 15 percent of income,” she said. “But we’ve seen in this study, that number is simply too high.”

An increase of as little as 5 percent can make a difference for families at the upper end, Arenales said. And families at the lower end — making around $40,000 for a family of four — cannot make any room in their budget for additional health care costs.

Even families between the two groups frequently cannot afford to become seriously ill.

“This is something policy makers have got to look at,” Arenales said. “If they are going to mandate insurance for every individual, they need to know that people just can afford that.”

De Pircin said she worries that reform has left out people and their incomes.

“I’m afraid that we’re going to revamp the system, both at a state and federal level, and leave people out who simply cannot afford to join any program, at all,” she said. “Something like 84 percent of the people without insurance in Colorado are from working families. I’m worried about the people who won’t be on Medicare or Medicaid because they make too much, but they make too little to afford coverage on their own.”

The two groups hope that policymakers pay attention to the findings — and that people continue to become involved in the debate.

“We’re going to try to keep engaging people,” De Pircin said. “And we’ve presented these findings in D.C. and Denver. We have to let people know that affordability is going to be an issue for the vast majority of people. We have to recognize a minimum standard of affordability.”

Other findings from the study:

Available income varies widely even within income groups. There is no single dollar amount or percentage of income that will be suitable for all families.

A common-sense measure for expenses should include both necessary expenses — food, clothing, and housing — and other financial responsibilities such as student loan and credit card debt.

Public policy should not punish lower-income people for having savings.

Amy Gillentine covers health care for the Colorado Springs Business Journal.