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The emergency room entrance to Saint Joseph Hospital in Denver, photographed on Oct. 22, 2019. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)
The Colorado State Capitol on Jan. 19, 2019. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Two affiliated organizations with ties to hospitals and insurance companies have launched a six-figure public relations ad blitz against the creation of a “public” health insurance option in Colorado. 

The campaign began earlier this month and comes ahead of the 2020 legislative session, which begins next week and is expected to feature an intense battle over how and whether to create the public option. 

The so-called public option, as proposed by Gov. Jared Polis’ administration, would actually be run by private insurance companies that would offer plans with government oversight. The plans would be available at first only to people who buy coverage on their own, without help from an employer. But Polis administration officials have said they hope to expand the public option to small employers within a couple of years.

MORE: Colorado officials have finalized their proposal for a public health insurance option. Here’s what we still don’t know about it.

The proposal would allow state officials to dictate hospital prices for those covered by a public option plan and would require both hospitals and insurance companies to participate, a major sticking point for those industries. 

Federal Communications Commission filings show that a group called Partnership for America’s Health Care Future has spent more than $100,000 on television ads in the Denver and Colorado Springs/Pueblo markets since Dec. 11. 

YouTube video

Meanwhile, an offshoot organization, Colorado’s Health Care Future, spent nearly $21,000 on scores of different Facebook ads starting Dec. 11, each blasting the public option proposal. The ads warn that Coloradans could be forced to cover the cost of the public option and that it would hurt the state’s economy. 

“Health care decisions should be made by Coloradans and their doctors – not politicians,” one ad says.

Another says: “Every Coloradan deserves access to affordable, high-quality health coverage. But the new state government option will threaten access to quality care for Coloradans.”

Colorado’s Health Care Future’s Facebook page was created less than a month ago, about three weeks after the Polis administration finalized its public option proposal. Its website only says it’s “a project of” Partnership for America’s Health Care Future and has no contact options or further identifying information.

Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, a deep-pocketed nonprofit created in 2018 that attacks government-run health care efforts, boasts members including health insurance providers, such as BlueCross BlueShield, and the American Hospital Association, the Federation of American Hospitals and the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors. The Colorado Farm Bureau is also listed among its members.

The Colorado Hospital Association has said the public option proposal, in its current form, is unacceptable

“Colorado hospitals fully recognize that there is much work that needs to be done to address health care affordability,” Chris Tholen, CHA’s executive vice president, said in a written statement earlier this year. “But embarking on a path that adds further uncertainty by destabilizing Colorado’s insurance market, on top of instituting government price controls, will likely cause consequences on the state’s health care system beyond what is intended.”

State Rep. Dylan Roberts, an Avon Democrat who is leading the push for a public health insurance option in Colorado, says he has seen the ads on TV. While he was expecting a tough battle over the proposal and certainly organized, deep-pocketed opposition, he’s surprised it’s cropped up so early. 

“It’s unfortunate that a bunch of out-of-state money is coming into Colorado to try and infiltrate our airwaves and message a bill that hasn’t even been introduced yet,” Roberts said.

MORE: In a plan to set hospital prices, Colorado could see the mother of all health care battles

Roberts is bullish on the passage of a bill creating a public option, even in an election year and with well-funded groups working to stop the legislation. 

“We’ll push through,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how much money they have from out of state.”

Health care policy experts across the nation are keeping tabs on how the public option idea plays out in Colorado.

Washington is the only state that has passed a bill to implement a similar program, so Colorado could be a national model if it’s successful. 

Polis and his administration, meanwhile, are making the creation of a public option a priority as part of their efforts to reduce health care costs in Colorado.

Colorado Sun correspondent Sandra Fish and staff writer John Ingold contributed to this report.

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....