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Lobbyists gather outside the state Senate chambers at the Colorado Capitol in Denver on Feb. 22, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

A national nonprofit working against Colorado Democrats’ bill to drive down health care costs in the state is setting spending records, with a dark-money nonprofit dropping nearly $560,000 to oppose the measure over a nine-month period.

Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, funded by hospitals, insurers and other business interests, is now the top single-year lobbying client for any year since at least 2011. It’s possible they are the top single-year lobbying spender ever in Colorado.

The nonprofit paid Washington, D.C., firm Forbes Tate nearly $180,000 in March alone. With three months left in the fiscal year, the spending already exceeds the $455,000 Xcel Energy spent in all of 2020. The utility has been the top lobbying client in Colorado since at least 2011, a Colorado Sun analysis shows.

House Bill 1232 is advancing through the Colorado House after being heavily amended on Tuesday. The current version would require private insurance carriers to offer a standardized plan that’s highly regulated by the state and which drives down health insurance premium costs by 18% over the next three years.

None of that money appears to be paying for individual lobbyists at the state Capitol. Instead it’s going to Forbes Tate for consulting to defeat House Bill 1232.

“We do not have a registered lobbyist in this building lobbying for the Partnership,” said Tyler Mounsey, spokesman for Colorado’s Health Care Future, a subsidiary of America’s Health Care Future.

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Forbes Tate reports the partnership spent another $964,000 on expenses other than lobbying in the effort to defeat the measure. 

PLUS Communications of Washington, D.C., received nearly $103,000 in expenses from Forbes Tate, mostly for consulting. That public relations firm, in turn, paid $22,500 to lobbyist Ted Trimpa and his firm, Trimpa Group, in the first three months of the year. Trimpa hasn’t disclosed lobbying on any bills during the legislative session, however. 

The spending includes nearly $480,000 paid to Patriot Contact for consulting in March. In the past, the Washington, D.C., firm has conducted direct-mail campaigns for a federal super PAC, and Partnership for America’s Health Care Future sent mailers in March opposing the public option bill before lawmakers scrapped the idea of trying to implement a state-run health insurance plan.

A TV ad campaign estimated to cost $1 million based on TV contracts filed with the Federal Communication Commission, has not yet been reported in Colorado’s lobbying disclosures database. 

In 2020, Partnership for America’s Health Care Future spent $236,000 directly on lobbying in Colorado and another $4.8 million on related expenses, mostly advertising.

A sign outside Saint Joseph Hospital in Denver, photographed on Oct. 22, 2019. The hospital’s parent, SCL Health, is not a member or known financial supporter of the Partnership for America’s Healthcare Future. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)

The opposition spending dwarfs that of supporters of House Bill 1232. United States of Care, a national nonprofit, reported spending $65,500 on survey research and consulting in Colorado. That December survey of 601 registered voters indicated more than 60% of voters support a public option health insurance plan.

“I’m not surprised to see the amount of spending coming from the partnership,” said Erin Huppert, the group’s state affairs director. “The coalition of advocates (supporting the bill) is really broad and really diverse. They can’t match the spending of groups like the partnership.”

More than 150 firms and individual lobbyists report lobbying for more than 100 clients on House Bill 1232. More than half oppose the measure, and only about 20 groups support it. Those groups are mostly nonprofits with low lobbying budgets, spending an average of $26,000 thus far this year.

Colorado isn’t the only state where the Partnership for America’s Health Care Future is fighting House Bill 1232. The group paid Forbes Tate nearly $95,000 to lobby in Connecticut in the first three months of the year. It also has a state organization in Nevada, and The Washington Post reported it has aired ads in Maine and Montana.

CVS, the pharmacy chain that also owns health insurer Aetna, gave $5 million to the Partnership for America’s Health Care Future in 2020, The Intercept reported last week. The Partnership for America’s Health Care Future also counts among its partners many major hospitals and health insurers, as well as the Colorado Business Roundtable and the Colorado Farm Bureau.

Sandra Fish has covered government and politics in Iowa, Florida, New Mexico and Colorado. She was a full-time journalism instructor at the University of Colorado for eight years, and her work as appeared on CPR, KUNC, The Washington Post, Roll...