Connect for Health Colorado

To see what insurance options are available on Colorado's health care exchange, visit connectforhealthco.com. For assistance with the process from Boulder County, call 303-441-1000 or visit bouldercounty.org.

Important deadlines

Monday: Date to sign up for health insurance and have that coverage begin Jan. 1.

March 31: Open enrollment ends. Policies begin on various dates after this, depending on the plan.

More than 2,100 Boulder County residents -- nearly 10 percent of the total number statewide -- have enrolled in health insurance through Colorado's new health care marketplace, established this year in compliance with President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, according to county officials.

As of last week, 23,009 Coloradans had enrolled in private health insurance through state exchange Connect for Health Colorado, including 2,183 from Boulder County. According to county officials, 13 percent of Boulder County's 16,747 uninsured residents had enrolled in private health insurance as of Dec. 14.

"This is an amazing time," said Mae Hsu, Boulder County health coverage manager. "It's just an unprecedented time where people can get health insurance at an affordable cost. It's been exciting to be part of it and have a team so dedicated to helping people get enrolled.

"It's huge for some people who have never had insurance or were paying much more than they could afford to be able to access it."

Boulder County has the fourth-highest number of enrolled residents among all Colorado counties. Jefferson County leads the state with 2,801 enrolled residents. In Arapahoe County, 2,767 residents have signed up and 2,745 Denver County residents have enrolled.

Boulder County officials attribute the high rate of sign-ups -- county residents comprise 5 percent of the total statewide population, but make up nearly 10 percent of health care enrollments -- to extensive outreach efforts and one-on-one assistance.

County officials have hosted 20 public presentations that reached about 300 residents to explain the new health care law. The county also sent information about the health care expansion via mail and email, Hsu said.

"We have done a lot of outreach on our end with public presentations, trainings with our community partners," Hsu said. "We also did mailings, postcards and emails to eligible clients."

The county also hired six "health guides" starting last July to help with the exchange's rollout, Hsu said.

'Coverage I've never had'

For Donna Heller, who lost her job this summer and moved to Boulder to live with her adult children, the health care expansion helped her save nearly $300 a month in private coverage.

This year, she's paying $378 per month with a $5,500 deductible.

On Jan. 1, she'll be paying $102 per month with no deductible, she said.

Heller acknowledged that the Colorado process had some of its own glitches to start, but with the help of county health guides, she was able to enroll before the Dec. 23 deadline for coverage starting Jan. 1.

"You have to be a little patient and you definitely want to work with a health guide," she said.

First, Heller said she had to apply to see whether she qualified for Medicaid -- which she didn't -- and then she was able to shop on the exchange.

She received a $481 per month subsidy, which significantly reduced the cost of her insurance options. She's still looking for work as an art therapist, so she receives unemployment benefits, she said.

"Thank God there's something like this," Heller said. "Those (unemployment) checks just don't reach that far."

Under her current plan, Heller said she never goes to the doctor because of her high deductible. Now she'll pay a $30 copay for office visits.

"My coverage is coverage I've never had," she said.

'It's way better'

Boulder resident Luis Vargas, who's self-employed as a triathlon coach, had a similarly positive experience with Colorado's health exchange.

The process of inputting all of his family's information, such as social security numbers and incomes, was tedious, he said. But after that, he was surprised to see that a new plan for his family of four will save him around $200 each month.

"We were paying through the nose," Vargas said of his previous insurance coverage. "I'm self-employed so I have to get my own (insurance) and they're constantly ripping us off. It's unbelievable. Now we pay less. Less deductibles, we got vision (insurance), we have dental (insurance)."

One of the best parts of the exchange was seeing what types of insurance were available in Colorado and Boulder County.

"It was like gong through iTunes and seeing that this song was really popular," Vargas said.

He also enjoyed having the help of what he called a "middle man," someone to help him through the process that wasn't trying to sell him insurance from any one company, he said.

Even if the cost of insurance on the exchange was higher than what he's paying now, Vargas said he planned to enroll anyway to help the new health care system work.

"The only reason we signed up was we wanted to support the system," he said. "I wasn't expecting to save money. We thought, 'It'll only work if we sign up.' We wanted to try it, and even if it was the same or close, we were going to sign up or be part of it.

"It turns out it's way better."

Contact Staff Writer Sarah Kuta at 303-473-1106, kutas@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/sarahkuta.