The emergency room entrance to Saint Joseph Hospital in Denver, photographed on Oct. 22, 2019. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)

By James Anderson, The Associated Press

Health insurance premiums are expected to stay stable next year for individuals buying coverage on the Colorado insurance exchange, continuing a cost-saving trend under a state-run program that covers the most expensive cases, Gov. Jared Polis said Tuesday.

Individuals buying on the exchange are expected to save more than 24% next year compared with what they would pay if they had to purchase coverage without the state program, the Democratic governor said in a statement. The average cost will be 1.4% more than this year, according to preliminary estimates.

The estimated savings are based on private insurers’ proposed plans for next year that were submitted to the Division of Insurance for approval. Final plans and rates will be released in October, ahead of the 2022 buying period that starts Nov. 1.

The state covers the highest-cost cases under the so-called reinsurance program that began in 2019, allowing insurers to moderate their rates. It’s also allowed them to extend their coverage, especially in rural areas where scarce, if any, competition in the past delivered some of the nation’s highest premiums for many regions of Colorado.

Next year, just one of Colorado’s 64 counties — Jackson County, in the northern part of the state — will have a single carrier on the individual market next year, compared with 10 counties this year and 22 counties in 2020, Polis said.

“We need to do more, but our effort to save people money on health care is working,” he said.

Premium increases and rates vary. In western Colorado — long an area hard hit by lack of competition — the Division of Insurance estimates individual premiums may increase by 7.7% next year. But what individuals will pay there will be nearly 40% less than if they didn’t have the state program’s backing, the division says.

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For small businesses of 100 employees and less, insurers plan to offer 550 plans statewide on the exchange, with an estimated average 5.3% premium increase over this year.

Residents can look forward to future savings thanks to a new law requiring insurers to offer a standard state-supervised health plan to individuals and small businesses starting in 2023. By 2025, it requires premium reductions of 15% from plans offered now.

The law also provides for possible sanctions for hospitals and other health care providers that don’t participate in lowering costs under the “Colorado Option” plan to be developed by the state, insurers and health care providers this year.

Polis has made health care accessibility and affordability top priorities since his 2018 election.

He and Democrats who control the Legislature are seeking to import cheaper prescription drugs from abroad, address inequities in health care exposed by the coronavirus pandemic, mandate hospital price transparency, drive down prescription drug costs, cap insulin prices and bolster mental health care, among many other initiatives.