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Medical equipment. (Unsplash)

A deep-pocketed nonprofit backed by private insurance companies has launched a barrage of advertising aimed at building public opposition to Colorado Democrats’ attempt to create a public health insurance option.

Partnership for America’s Health Care Future launched a TV ad buy at a cost of nearly $1 million on Monday that will run through early April. The ads are airing in the Denver, Grand Junction and Colorado Springs television markets.

And that’s just the beginning of the group’s full-court press against a bill that still hasn’t been introduced. 

The nonprofit and its subsidiary, Colorado’s Health Care Future, also fought against the proposal last year before it was shelved because of coronavirus and political headwinds. In fiscal year 2020, which spanned from July 2019 and June 2020, the nonprofit group spent $4.8 million on advertising and consulting in opposition to the bill. It also spent $236,000 on direct lobbying against the measure during that period. 

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And the organization is already the top-spending lobbying client in Colorado from July 2020 through the end of January, having spent $203,500. The group’s lobbying firm, Forbes Tate Partners of Washington, D.C., reports pouring another $156,000 in those seven months, mostly on consulting around the public option proposal.

Partnership for America’s Health Care Future began in 2018 and also is spending to campaign against federal health care initiatives such as Medicare for All. The group’s members include the American Hospital Association, Colorado Business Roundtable, Farm Bureau of Colorado, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America and a variety of private health insurance carriers. 

Colorado Healthcare Future spokesman Tyler Mounsey criticized the prospective legislation. The group cites studies that a public health care option would harm communities of color and would harm hospital financial health, especially for rural hospitals. “It is disappointing that lawmakers are willing to check-the-box instead of providing answers to important questions about the impacts of the bill and respond to concerns raised by vested stakeholders,” Mounsey said in a written statement.   

Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Vail Democrat championing the public option, decried the big spending by opponents.

“If you’re spending $1 million, you must be protecting a profit much bigger than $1 million,” she said. “This is big corporate money pulling together resources to try to defeat a bill they haven’t read yet. They don’t even know what they are fighting, so they must be protecting their bottom line.”

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

The spending The Sun identified doesn’t include digital ads being run by Partnership for America’s Health Care Future. The group’s ads started showing up on digital games over the weekend and they have also purchased sponsorship slots on The Sun’s website and in its politics newsletter. 

Colorado’s lobbying regulations mean the group will eventually have to report what it’s paying for all types of advertising.

The nonprofit Colorado Consumer Health Initiative is leading support for the public option. It spent about $61,000 to lobby in fiscal year 2020 and has spent nearly $31,000 so far this fiscal year on pushing for the legislation’s passage. Adam Fox, the group’s deputy director, said the $1 million ad buy is about the same as the initiative’s annual budget.

“We will be running some paid media,” Fox said, adding, “there is simply no way financially that we are going to compete with what they are spending on this proposal.”

Fox said one study indicated one in five Coloradans struggled to pay for health care, and that was before the pandemic. His group will work to amplify the voices of consumers.

“At the end of the day, when we’re up against a very well-financed powerful industry, the only way we can really fight back is through people power and stories of the people affected,” Fox said.

Another recent study indicated profits for Colorado’s hospitals are among the highest in the nation.

State Rep. Dylan Roberts, an Avon Democrat also championing the bill to create a public health insurance option, says the measure will be introduced “in just a few weeks.” And he noted the measure will be different than the one debated last year, before the coronavirus sent lawmakers on a two-month hiatus.

“What we’re going to be proposing is a two-phase approach, where plan-year 2023 and continuing into plan-year 2024 the bill will set a goal for premium reductions,” Roberts said.

Since not all insurance coverage begins at the start of the calendar year, it can be referred to as a plan year. 

A draft of the legislation, first obtained by Colorado Politics, shows that lawmakers want insurance carriers in the 2023 plan year to offer a standardized plan premium that is at least 10% less than the premium rate they offered in 2021 on the individual market. By the 2024 plan year, that reduction must jump to 20%.

Hospitals, insurance companies and pharmaceutical interests “get to determine amongst themselves, without mandates from the state, how to achieve those goals.”

If they can reach an agreement that will sufficiently drive down premium costs, then the deal will continue in perpetuity with an increase from the previous year of no more than the consumer price index plus 1%.

“If they cannot achieve the goals, then we move to Phase 2, where the state of Colorado, through a nonprofit entity, would offer a Colorado option,” Roberts said.

Another circumstance that could trigger the public option being offered under the draft legislation is if at least two carriers aren’t offering insurance plans in each ZIP code in the state for plan year 2024.

A hospital bed. (Unsplash)

The public option, under the draft bill, would be run through a nonprofit set up by the state, making it quasi-governmental. Last year’s version of the proposal called for the plan to be dictated by the state but offered through private insurance carriers.

If Republicans manage to gain control of the General Assembly while insurance companies, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies are trying to drive down premium costs, they could try to repeal the law.

“They would need to pass a bill to overturn it,” Roberts said. “I suppose that’s a reality.”

“This is just a draft,” Roberts cautioned, explaining that it could change based on stakeholder input.

Roberts warned his constituents about the company ad blitz in an email blast last week.

“Your airwaves, mailboxes, and computer screens are about to be bombarded by a multimillion dollar ad campaign seeking to spread misinformation about this bill,” he wrote. “They will rely on made-up data and ‘facts’ that have nothing to do with this year’s bill in order to distract you from what is actually going on. Don’t fall for it.”

The public option legislation is one of the top priorities at the Capitol this year for Democratic Gov. Jared Polis. The measure is expected to be one of the most fiercely debated bills of the 2021 lawmaking term.

The Colorado Sun —

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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.

A Colorado College graduate, Jesse worked at The Denver Post from June 2014 until July 2018, when he joined The Sun. He was also an intern at The Gazette in Colorado Springs and The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, his hometown.

Jesse has won awards for long form feature writing, public service reporting, sustained coverage and deadline news reporting.

Email: Twitter: @jesseapaul

Special to The Colorado Sun
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