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Colorado public option opponents accused of trying to “weaponize” doctors against health insurance proposal

PATH, an organization backed by Colorado hospitals, is encouraging medical professionals to speak out against the soon-to-come public health insurance option legislation

A sign outside Saint Joseph Hospital in Denver, photographed on Oct. 22, 2019. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)
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A newly formed organization backed by Colorado hospitals, business leaders and Republican elected officials is encouraging doctors and other medical professionals to join the fight against a proposed public health insurance option and harness the trust people have in those professions.

The new tactic comes on the heels of a pricey ad campaign — costing at least $150,000 and counting — launched last month to persuade Coloradans to contact their state lawmakers and speak out against the public option plan, which is a legislative priority for Gov. Jared Polis and Democrats at the state Capitol.

A bill to create a public option in Colorado hasn’t even been introduced yet. But the general idea, as proposed by Polis’ administration, is to offer health insurance plans through the state but which would be run by private insurance companies. The legislation is expected to be introduced in the coming weeks.

Two of the most controversial aspects of the proposal: A part that would allow state officials to dictate hospital prices for those covered by a public option plan and another that would require both hospitals and insurance companies to participate.

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

The Partnership for Accountability and Transparency in Healthcare, or PATH, has been holding voluntary informational sessions for doctors and other medical professionals about the public option and other Polis efforts to drive down health care costs. 

The nonprofit organization was formed within the past year and its advocacy board includes people such as El Paso County Commissioner Cami Bremmer, Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese, the Colorado Chamber of Commerce’s Lauren Furman, and Aurora Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Kevin Hougan.

A copy of PATH’s “ambassador training program” presentation for medical professionals, obtained and confirmed by The Colorado Sun, points to problems with the reinsurance health care program enacted by the state legislature in 2019 and championed by Polis as proof of the governor’s problematic health care policies.

It also says that “public officials feel pressure — or see an opportunity — to ‘do something’ in the name of lowering health care costs.”

“Polling shows that health care professionals, i.e. the people who actually treat patients, are viewed more favorably than other players in the health care debate,” one slide says. “Policymakers and the public want to hear what you have to say, and your views will have a major impact.”

The presentation encourages medical professionals to talk to their peers “in other professions, trade associations, chambers of commerce and other civic groups.” It also asks them to “seek out speaking opportunities,” submit letters to the editor, testify at the legislature and generally talk to “anyone you know with a stake in the outcome of this debate.”

Finally, the presentation urges medical professionals not to “try to win arguments” and instead to put a human face on the Colorado hospital sector. It urges doctors and nurses to take action to prevent cuts in health care services, job losses, hospital closures and even higher insurance premiums for consumers. 

PATH says that they are just following in the footsteps of what other groups have done to mobilize workers and influence decisions on important issues. As an example, PATH points to teachers and their activism at the Capitol seeking better pay and more money for school districts. 

It also stresses that the information sessions are voluntary and that it doesn’t encourage medical professionals to speak to patients about the public option.

“Who better to participate in the discussion about health care policy than the men and women on the front lines of providing care and driving innovation?” asked Cinamon Watson, a spokeswoman for PATH. “Just like teachers and school administrators have an important voice in education policy, the dedicated professionals who serve on the front lines of Colorado’s health care system have every right to speak up when misguided proposals threaten their jobs and undermine the quality of care they can provide.”

Watson also said that the governor and his administration have “been targeting Colorado hospitals for months, so it should be no surprise that hospital professionals want to defend themselves against these attacks.” 

The Partnership for Accountability and Transparency in Healthcare, or PATH, website. “Who better to participate in the discussion about health care policy than the men and women on the front lines of providing care and driving innovation?” asked Cinamon Watson, a spokeswoman for PATH. (Screenshot)

(While the proposed public option would set hospital prices, it would not dictate the prices charged by independent doctors, nor would it require them to accept insurance coverage offered through the public option.)

Among the hospital systems working with PATH are HealthONE, a for-profit that owns and operates Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center, Rose Medical Center and Swedish Medical Center, and Centura Health, a nonprofit that owns and operates St. Anthony Hospital and Porter Adventist Hospital.

“Along with several other metro-area health systems, we are a member of PATH,” HealthONE spokeswoman Stephanie Sullivan said in a written statement. “They have conducted a host of informational sessions across the metro area.”

In his recent State of the State speech, Polis blasted hospitals for spending money to fight the public option. “Front Range hospitals with over $2 billion in profits in 2018 — let me say that again, $2 billion of profits in a single year — are already using some of those profits from overcharging patients to run ads against legislation that would save families money,” he said. “We won’t let that work.”

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State Rep. Dylan Roberts, an Avon Democrat who is championing the public option effort, says it’s completely within medical professionals’ rights to speak out against the public option and that he encourages their participation in the legislative process. The difference here, he says, is that doctors and nurses are being encouraged to do so and being “weaponized” by PATH “to protect massive profits.”

“It’s incredibly sad, and frankly pretty disgusting, that they are trying to use the caregivers in our society,” he said. “I guess they’ve stooped to a new low in opposition.”

State Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Vail Democrat who is also leading the public option push, called PATH’s efforts “alarming. She accused the group of trying to take advantage of the trust the public has in doctors and nurses.

“I’ve never had a teacher come to me and speak against bills that would help students get more funding,” she said.

Colorado state Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, speaks on Feb. 1, 2019, at a town hall meeting in Frisco about the high cost of health care in Colorado’s mountain communities. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)

Roberts points out that the Colorado Medical Society, the trade organization representing more than 7,500 doctors at the state Capitol, is tentatively supportive of the public option as proposed by the Polis administration. It will not take a formal position until it sees the actual bill. 

Colorado Medical Society President David Markenson said in a written statement in November that his organization “applauds the efforts undertaken for the public option report that is making its way to the 2020 state legislature for further debate and stakeholder input.” The group wasn’t available Monday to comment further.

Roberts said he will continue working with that organization and others representing doctors and nurses to finalize the legislation and make sure medical professionals’ voices are heard.

PATH isn’t the only group working against the public option in Colorado. The Partnership for America’s Health Care Future and Colorado’s Health Care Future have spent about $150,000 on television and digital ads against the proposal.

Similar to PATH, Colorado’s Health Care Future was also recently created and doesn’t disclose its staff or have contact information on its website. 

Additionally, PATH has spent at least $3,000 since June on Facebook ads against the public option, according to the social media site’s ad library. 

Rising Sun