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Colorado Democrats abandon 2020 effort to pass public health insurance option

The prime backers of the legislation say the coronavirus crisis has made it impossible to ensure that all of the relevant stakeholders -- hospitals, doctors and insurance companies -- can be involved in the lawmaking process

The emergency room entrance to Saint Joseph Hospital in Denver, photographed on Oct. 22, 2019. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)
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Democrats in the Colorado legislature on Monday said they are setting aside their contentious effort this year to pass a bill creating a public health insurance option.

The prime backers of the legislation, House Bill 1349, say the coronavirus crisis has made it impossible to ensure that all of the relevant stakeholders — hospitals, doctors and insurance companies — can be involved in the lawmaking process.

But the Democrats pushing for the measure, which is a priority of Gov. Jared Polis, say the pandemic has highlighted the need for the public option, which was planned to be a private insurance plan with hospital prices and other strict regulations set by the state.

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“While our state battles COVID-19, we note that this crisis is illuminating the vast gaps in our health care system,” state Rep. Dylan Roberts, an Avon Democrat, said in a written statement. “As the economic devastation unfolds and more Coloradans lose their access to employer-based insurance, it’s more clear than ever that our system is broken and that Coloradans deserve more choice and lower prices.” 

State lawmakers are also facing significant budget cuts because of economic impacts of coronavirus that likely would have made passing the public option legislation nearly impossible. House Speaker KC Becker, a Boulder Democrat, alluded to that factor last week.

“Public option may not be realistic right now,” she said.

But up until last week Roberts and state Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Vail Democrat and another prime sponsor of the effort, were holding out hope.

“The very people we need to work on it with are obviously focused on other stuff. We can’t give them one more thing to do right now,” Donovan said. “Ultimately it was time for doctors and nurses and EMTs to focus on the coronavirus, not helping us to write a really important piece of legislation where the details were really important to get right.”

State Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, speaks at a news conference about the introduction of a public health insurance option in Colorado at the state Capitol on Thursday, March 5, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

They indicated Monday that they will try again in 2021.

“When we introduced the bill, we sought robust engagement with nurses, pharmacists, EMTs, doctors and hospital staff,” state Rep. Chris Kennedy, a Lakewood Democrat who is also working on the policy, said in a written statement. “We plan to engage them after we emerge from this pandemic, and come out with stronger legislation that increases access to affordable health care across Colorado.”

Donovan said she plans to implement lessons learned during the pandemic into the next version of the bill.

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House Bill 1349 passed its first committee hearing in early March, before the Colorado General Assembly shut down because of the virus. It was considered to be one of the most ambitious policy goals of Democrats in the Colorado legislature this year.

The legislation caused friction between Democrats and Polis and the Colorado Hospital Association and health insurance insurance companies. Proponents pointed to hospitals’ profits as being a prime reason for why the bill is needed. Hospitals pushed back on the perception that they are flush with cash.

Groups linked to hospital and insurance interests launched high-dollar television and Facebook ad campaigns against the effort. One organization opposing the bill encouraged doctors and other medical professionals to join the fight against the measure.

Two of the most controversial aspects of the proposal were a clause that would have allowed state officials to dictate hospital prices for those covered by a public option plan and another that would have required both hospitals and insurance companies to participate in the effort.

“The governor thanks the lawmakers and advocates for this critical effort to save people money on healthcare, and knows that it is a matter of when,  not if, Coloradans finally get more choices for healthcare,” Polis’ spokesman, Conor Cahill, said in a written statement. “The governor remains committed to helping save people money on health care, which has never been more important.”

It’s unclear if the coronavirus crisis will be resolved by January 2021, when the next legislative session is set to begin. Also, hospitals have taken a financial blow because of the disease since they halted elective procedures to ensure they have the capacity to treat coronavirus patients. That dynamic could make the political atmosphere around the bill more difficult.

In a statement, Chris Tholen, the president and CEO of the Colorado Hospital Association, said he appreciates the bill sponsors withdrawing the proposal this year. But he said Colorado hospitals could see up to a $3 billion hit from the coronavirus this year. So, he said, any future proposal must not adversely affect hospitals financially.

“This public health crisis has changed many things for Coloradans personally, for our health care system and for our state,” Tholen said. “It has illustrated the critical role that hospitals play to serve their communities, respond to crises and protect the health of our state. It has also demonstrated how crucial it is to support our health care infrastructure — including protecting our front-line workers and facilities that are essential to pandemic response.”

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