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In Colorado, A Couple Finds Relief In Obamacare

Lela Petersen, owner of the Anything And Everything store in Flagler, Colo., expects the cost of health insurance for her and her husband to drop by my more than half next year.
Jeff Brady
Lela Petersen, owner of the Anything And Everything store in Flagler, Colo., expects the cost of health insurance for her and her husband to drop by my more than half next year.

There's plenty of criticism of the Affordable Care Act and how it's being implemented.

But let's introduce you to someone who is quite pleased with her Obamacare experience: Lela Petersen of Flagler, Colo. She's a small business owner with a very big health insurance bill.

But thanks to the health law, she expects that bill will be cut by more than half in January.

Petersen is 57, and her husband, Mike, is 60. They have some pre-existing conditions. He has diabetes. She has a back injury. The HMO policy they've carried since 1992 has risen over the years to $1,950 per month, just for the two of them.

"When you pay $1,950 for insurance you might as well forget retirement," says Petersen says. "There's just no way." Five years ago, she was planning on an early retirement, but she didn't anticipate health insurance costing as much as the rest of her bills combined.

At the beginning of October she checked out Colorado's insurance exchange and found the exact same policy from the same insurer for only $832 a month. "It's dropping us down about $1,100 a month. We can retire. We can go fishing. We can actually see a future," says Petersen.

Becoming part of an insurance pool helped Petersen reduce her cost. The federal law also forbids insurance companies from charging more for pre-existing conditions. That saved her a lot. And federal tax credits brought the cost down even further.

The Affordable Care Act will bring big changes for a lot of people, especially those who want to retire before they're eligible for Medicare. A 2012 survey by Employee Benefit Research Institute found 53 percent of workers polled planned to stay in their jobs longer than they wanted to, so they could keep health insurance through their employer.

So, clearly, lots of people feel tethered to their jobs because of health insurance, but it doesn't mean legions will follow Petersen into early retirement.

"We don't really know how it's going to play out at this point, how many people will choose to do something different and how fast that might happen," says Paul Fronstin, director of the health research program at EBRI.

Fronstin points out that poll was taken in 2012, before a lot of people understood how the Affordable Care Act would affect them. Even now many are unsure.

"There's a lack of knowledge about the law because people can't get on the website and find out what the premiums are for them," says Fronstin.

Colorado has been one of the exceptions. It's among the 14 states and District of Columbia that are running their own healthcare exchanges and websites.

"We went up and opened the website on Oct. 1, and the technology has been up and operational since that point in time," says Patty Fontneau, CEO of Connect for Health Colorado. Lela Petersen found the Colorado website confusing, so she got help over the telephone with only minor wait times.

Petersen doesn't belong to a political party and says she votes across the spectrum. But she lives in a solidly Republican area and her positive opinion of Obamacare is not widely shared by her neighbors. "Even my son is against it, so we do argue about that," says Petersen. Still, she's signed up and her new, cheaper, policy will take effect on January first.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues, climate change and the mid-Atlantic region. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.