Colorado lawmakers eye package of health-care bills to provide cost relief on Western Slope | VailDaily.com

Colorado lawmakers eye package of health-care bills to provide cost relief on Western Slope

Kevin Fixler
kfixler@summitdaily.com

State Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush (left in blue) flanked Gov. John Hickenlooper in Frisco last May as he signed a health-care bill into law that created a study on the cost of care. New legislation in Colorado is in the works for this cycle that will involve the Democrat from House District 26, as well as other state officials including state Rep. Millie Hamner (right of Mitsch Bush) and state Sen. Kerry Donovan, and backed by Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne.

DENVER — In the ongoing struggle to reduce the cost of health insurance on Colorado's Western Slope, this year's legislative cycle at the State Capitol could prove momentous.

With so much uncertainty at the federal level as a new executive branch and U.S. Congress take the reins guiding the nation's health care system, Colorado's lawmakers don't plan to wait around to see what happens. Instead, based on some of the recommendations produced from two state commissions looking at the cost of care in the high country and throughout the state, a package of proposed statutes are in the works.

"There is going to be a lot of movement on these issues this session," said Rep. Millie Hamner, a Democrat from House District 61, which includes Summit County. "But clearly the budget is going to be quite a challenge this year. The more a bill addresses a critical need and has bipartisan support, the more likely it will make its way through and get funded."

Four major themes

“This issue is at the very top of priorities for my constituents, and something we just have to find a way to deal with.”Millie HamnerState representative, House District 61

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The four major themes the bills will address are cost, choice, quality and transparency. Consumer protection is a component woven into each as well, and Gov. John Hickenlooper's office, which since last year includes health care pundit Donna Lynne, is soon set to announce that it will throw its weight behind the forthcoming legislative bundle.

One bill that is in the process of being finalized should be introduced in the next couple of weeks. That bill will attempt to help with the affordability issue for many mountain and Eastern Plains families who do not currently qualify for a federal subsidy as part of the federal Affordable Care Act. Those earning up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level — approximately $47,500 for an individual and $97,000 for a family of four — are eligible, but legislation introduced by state Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush will request that the range be moved up to 500 percent to target those paying more than 15 percent of their annual income for health insurance.

"It's structured in such a way that the cost-burdened in that income level will get help," said Mitsch Bush, who represents Eagle and Routt counties, House District 26. "Folks literally can't pay their insurance premiums and have got to have something immediately. This bill is the 'something immediately' to get some relief."

The Sooner the better

The Colorado Division of Insurance already approved the insurance rates for this year, which had average hikes of more than 20 percent across Colorado and as much as 46 percent for some areas. As a result, very little can be done to offset present-day costs until 2018 premiums are set this fall.

Mitsch Bush believes there's an opportunity for her proposal to lend financial respite in the meantime, while longer-term structural changes are evaluated and voted up or down on the General Assembly floor.

Another of the resort region's health care advocates agrees that the sooner the better when it comes to providing locals any amount of cost assistance. Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs, who actively participated on two state policy commissions and is also vice chair of the health care policy committee for the western county lobbying group Club 20, sees the need to explore both administrative and legislative solutions, but is bullish this legislative session will move the needle.

"I really applaud the state of Colorado and legislators for not waiting for the feds, but to say, 'OK, there's a lot that we can do at the state level to help curb the cost of health care,'" Gibbs said. "But, you have to get the bill through. I don't think it's going to get any easier. It's going to take a lot of people contacting their legislators, contacting the governor, saying that this is a priority for them."

State Rep. Bob Rankin (R-Carbondale), Sen. Kerry Donovan (D-Vail), and Sen. John Kefalas (D-Fort Collins) are others involved in the process, each planning to either co-sponsor or present their own bills to address the issue. Kefalas plans to introduce a bill on pharmaceutical transparency and improved regulations for the free-standing emergency centers that have multiplied on the Front Range. The hope in this legislative cycle is that the whole of these individual bills will be greater than the sum of their parts.

"This issue is at the very top of priorities for my constituents, and something we just have to find a way to deal with," said Hamner. "All of these discussions are happening under the shadow of the unknown as far as changes at the federal level, so it's hard to say what changes could be made that affect our action between now and May. I'm optimistic we can work together to find solutions, and we'll need all of those strategies."