Gov. Polis signs 4 health insurance bills in Silverthorne, including extension of reinsurance program

Gov. Polis signs 4 health insurance bills in Silverthorne, including extension of reinsurance program

By Libby Stanford (July 6, 2020)

SILVERTHORNE — Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed four bills into law Monday, June 6, at the Silverthorne Performing Arts Center, expanding access to health care for Coloradans. 

The first bill he signed, Senate Bill 20-215 the Health Insurance Affordability Enterprise, is championed by Summit County leaders. 

Rep. Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, sponsored the bill, which extends the state’s reinsurance program for five years and expands coverage to those who were left out of the program. 

“When I decided to run for public office three years ago, the one issue that came up most often in any of the five counties that I traveled … the biggest issue was affordable health care,” McCluskie said in an interview. 

Colorado’s reinsurance program aims to drive down insurance costs by reimbursing insurers for the highest cost claims, according to the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies. In its first year of operation, people across colorado saved about 20% on insurance premiums on the individual market. Summit County residents have saved even more — around 47%, according to Polis — because of the Peak Health Alliance, a nonprofit insurance purchasing organization. 

“The mission of Peak Health Alliance really is to make health insurance more affordable,” Peak Health Alliance CEO Tamara Pogue said in an interview. “Any strategy that does that, we support. … If there’s one thing we all know about health care, given how complicated it is, it’s going to take a lot of different strategies to really make it affordable for all of our residents.”

Pogue said the reinsurance program helps Peak Health Alliance do its job by providing a protection mechanism for insurance carriers. 

“When Peak started, everyone sort of thought we were crazy,” she said. “Typically when we talk about health care, we don’t talk about local solutions to health care. We’re really grateful to this administration that they’ve recognized that these local solutions can be part of solving the problem.”

Along with extending the state’s reinsurance program, the law aims to provide more access to insurance for low-income people who receive federal subsidies under the Affordable Care Act. In its first year of operation, the program caused those people to spend more on health insurance than they did before, McCluskie said.

“It was an unintended consequence,” she said. “So with (the law), we have set aside dollars to protect low-income Coloradans from having that happen again.”

The law also addresses families who fall into the “family glitch,” which applies to households that had one family member eligible for health care through their employer but the rest of the family wasn’t eligible or they were eligible at a greater cost. It also expands coverage to undocumented immigrants. Funding is now in place to help those families and individuals enroll in the individual marketplace, McCluskie said.

While the reinsurance program applies to a minority of people, it helps everyone, including those who receive insurance through their employer, said Rep. Chris Kennedy, D-Lakewood, who also sponsored the bill. 

“With this bill, we are stabilizing the entire insurance market,” he said at the event. “When we increase the number of people enrolling on the individual insurance market … we’re going to dramatically increase insurance enrollment … There will be a really positive effect on total enrollment, which is going to stabilize prices and reduce cost shifting into other markets.”

In addition to the reinsurance program, Polis signed three other bills. 


Guest Commentary: Polis should sign bill to mandate insurance coverage of pain management care

Guest Commentary: Polis should sign bill to mandate insurance coverage of pain management care

By Chris Kennedy (July 2, 2020)

Colorado has been busy fighting the coronavirus pandemic so it’s easy to forget we’re also fighting an opioid epidemic. And since many people are currently experiencing feelings of isolation and anxiety over finances, opioid addiction is expected to get even worse.

The abuse and misuse of prescription drugs in Colorado is one of the state’s major public health crises. In 2019, Colorado experienced an unprecedented 1,062 drug overdose deaths, and fentanyl overdoses doubled between 2018 and 2019. And since the pandemic began, more Americans report feeling depressed and anxious as we’ve seen the use of anti-anxiety drugs increase 34%.

None of this bodes well for treating and preventing substance abuse.

Over the last few years, Colorado has made significant investments in treating and preventing opioid addiction, which claims the lives of more than 500 Coloradans a year.

However, amidst budget troubles, many of those life-saving programs have recently sustained big cuts — millions of dollars. There is less (or no funding) for vital services like a Medicaid program to cover in-patient and residential treatment for drugs and alcohol addiction; training doctors and nurses to screen their patients for substance abuse and refer them to treatment, and funding for sober living homes.

But a potential bright spot in this challenging time is House Bill 1085, which would make treatments like physical therapy, occupational therapy, chiropractic care and acupuncture more affordable in an effort to stop opioid addiction. The proposal requires insurers to cover at least six alternative therapy visits at a cost-sharing amount not to exceed the regular amount charged for a primary care visit. HB 1085 passed the legislature on June 11. This means, if signed by Gov. Jared Polis, patients would no longer have to pay more to address underlying pain than they would to get an opioid prescription to mask the pain, potentially leading to an addiction issue.

And even better: This type of approach not only saves lives, but it also saves money.

That’s why, for example, UnitedHealthcare introduced a new benefit for people with acute low back pain that makes it more affordable to access physical therapy and chiropractic care. Based on a UnitedHealthcare analysis, by 2021, this benefit design has the potential to reduce the number of spinal imaging tests by 22%, spinal surgeries by 21%, opioid use by 19%, and lower the total cost of care for eligible plan participants and employers.

These findings align with peer-reviewed research published in the medical journal Spine that showed early physical therapy was associated with a decreased risk of: advanced imaging, additional physician visits, surgery, injections and opioid use. In fact, total medical costs for lower-back pain were $2,736 lower for patients receiving early physical therapy.

In addition, the bill requires better insurance coverage for safer, atypical opioids that often can’t be accessed by patients without jumping through hoops and paying more than they’d have to pay for traditional opioids. HB 1085 also continues the seven-day prescription limit and the mandate that doctors must check a patient’s record on the prescription drug monitoring program before prescribing a refill of opioids. In addition, among other things, the bill updates the curriculum for health care provider education programs.

House Bill 1085 is a result of a bipartisan committee of state senators and representatives who met to consider possible policies to fight the prescription drug misuse. It acknowledges that a frequent starting point for an opioid is musculoskeletal pain and that when a physician visit to obtain an opioid is cheaper than addressing the underlying pain, we have a significant problem.

That’s why I join with doctors, physical therapists, mental health professionals and consumer advocates to urge Gov. Jared Polis to sign this important legislation. Colorado’s prevention and treatment programs have taken major steps backward, and especially in light of recent budget cuts, Coloradans are counting on his signature to continue addressing and ending the opioid crisis.


More News

Colorado governor vetoes bill that sought to reduce prescription opioid abuse by Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun

Governor Vetoes Bill That Would Have Covered Alternative Therapies to Reduce Opioid Use by Andrew Kennedy, CPR News

LEGISLATURE 2020 | Session marked by what didn’t happen

LEGISLATURE 2020 | Session marked by what didn’t happen

By Joey Bunch and Marianne Goodland (June 19, 2020)

The 2020 legislative is marked as much by what didn’t pass as what did.

Some of the hottest items on the Democratic majority’s Christmas wish list had melted away by the time summer approached.

Coming into the session in January, for example, the public option insurance was supposed to be the biggest bill of the session. Going out, it was only a possibility for 2021, legislative leaders said, and they didn’t sound optimistic.

This session, roughly half, or about 300 bills, were scuttled to make room for pandemic relief, a rescue for the state’s budget and pet projects lawmakers were wed to, such as new restrictions on school immunization waivers that took up days.

The public option, though, was characterized as a game changer by Democrats just a few months ago.

The public-private insurance was supposed to pull down insurance premiums by offering a below-market rate built on price caps on hospitals and doctors, which proved not a politically palatable idea in the wake of a global pandemic. 

Sponsors withdrew the bill, which managed to pass one committee in March before the shutdown.  

Next year? 

“I think so,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg of Boulder told a group of reporters on the last day of the session. “This is something that we went into this session wanting to work on. We’ve never said a public option is the only solution. We’ve said we want to bring down the cost of health care.

“And for us, the public option was a vehicle for us to do that, and I think it’s still on the table, but we’re making sure we’re approaching the problem with an end goal, not with an obsession over a very specific policy.”

Senate President Leroy Garcia said “there are a lot of different options we might look to, and that’s one option.”

House Speaker KC Becker is done after this session because of term limits, leaving a deep legacy of legislative success. House Majority Leader Alec Garnett of Denver, in a farewell tribute to Becker last week, pointed out that three bills define her legacy: Senate Bill 19-181, on oil and gas regulatory reform; Senate Bill 18-200, which attempts to shore up the Public Employees’ Retirement Association; and the most significant bill affecting rural Colorado in many years, Senate Bill 17-267. 

“It’s been a wild ride, certainly an unexpected and unprecedented session,” she said.

Becker cited protests that spurred on major police reforms in the legislature in three weeks’ time, as lawmakers were simultaneously cutting or back-filling nearly a quarter of their operating budget.

More budget cuts and higher taxes and fees could be on tap if the deep recession continues. A revenue forecast from state economists is slated for Friday.

“We still accomplished the majority of our goals that we set out, and we had challenges we never expected,” Fenberg said. “We passed the parts of our agenda we thought were most critical and wanted to get across the finish line.”

He lamented the need to do more on education, which legislators say almost every year. But the 2020-21 budget takes the General Assembly, and K-12 education, backward almost a decade. The spending plan that takes effect July 1 adds $621.4 million to the budget stabilization factor, the debt to K-12 that started after the Great Recession. The debt is now $1.18 billion, and higher than it’s ever been.

“We knew that going into this crisis and we know that even more so now,” he said of underfunding schools, adding about the progressive agenda, “There’s more work to do, and that’s what begins tomorrow,” Fenberg said.

Among the other bills that failed to reach the finish line:

  • Conservation easements. For 17 years, landowners, primarily on the Eastern Plains, have complained that they have been defrauded of their lands and tax credits by the state Department of Revenue, which canceled millions of dollars in tax credits claimed by those landowners for donating portions of land for conservation purposes. A working group tasked by 2019 legislation spent last summer and fall coming up with reparations and plans for restructuring part of the program’s provisions on orphan easements and a new way to determine land valuations. The cost of $147 million would have been covered by tax credits from revenue, but that part of the bill ran into trouble even before the pandemic. Rep. Dylan Roberts of Avon told Colorado Politics a new bill had been in the works before the recess that would have covered only the orphan easements and valuation piece. That never happened.
  • An effort to expand the state’s laws allowing importation of prescription drugs from Canada died in the session’s final days.
  • Senate Bill 125, which would have banned exotic animals in events such as the circuses and the Colorado Renaissance Festival, was among dozens of scuttled bills after the session resumed.
  • Two bills on guns, one that would require guns be stored in a safe, and another that requires the reporting of a stolen firearm, both died after the General Assembly returned.
  • Republicans’ perpetual efforts to ban abortions and throw out 2013 laws on guns got the same result they’ve been getting for the past six years: postponed indefinitely by Democrats.
  • So did two bills on plastics, one that would ban the use of polystyrene (Styrofoam) containers, another that would ban single-use plastics such as straws and grocery bags. 
  • A bill banning the use of handheld cellphones while driving also went by the wayside.
  • So did a bill extending the statute of limitations on sex abuse, tied to clergy abuse within the Catholic Church
  • A bill to remove the ability of county commissioners to draw their own district maps, which ran into trouble with commissioners in Arapahoe County, also died.
  • Health insurance providers won’t have to pay for the annual cost of a mental health exam, a bill passionately defended by Rep. Dafna Michaelson-Jenet of Aurora, who sought public support to keep it off the list of bills destined for elimination.


Last-minute negotiations shake up reinsurance bill

Last-minute negotiations shake up reinsurance bill

By Marianne Goodland (June 13, 2020)

The bill to refinance the state’s reinsurance program and extend it for an additional four years won preliminary approval from the House Friday evening, after a marathon negotiation session between the sponsors and health insurance carriers.

Senate Bill 215 would cut the fees paid into the reinsurance program by hospitals and levy a new fee for health insurance carriers to make up the difference and then some.

Reinsurance is a type of insurance that pays for health insurance plans’ most costly claims. The General Assembly adopted a bill last year to set up the two-year program, which obtained federal approval. 

The program applies only to the individual market in Colorado, which is about 7% of those insured. 

Last year’s law resulted in lower health insurance premiums, as much as 30% in some parts of rural Colorado, and 20% less statewide.

Under last year’s law, hospitals were slated to pay a $40 million fee beginning July 1.

Under SB215, the hospitals’ fee was cut in half and the first payment isn’t due until Jan. 1, 2022.

The bill also addresses several glitches in the insurance market, according to co-sponsor Rep. Chris Kennedy, a Lakewood Democrat. One is that employees who get their insurance from employers aren’t necessarily able to include families in the employers’ plans. SB215 would cover some of the costs for family premiums in the individual market. 

Another glitch has to do with the federal subsidy that helps cover some of the premiums. Those who were receiving the subsidy found that with lower premiums, their subsidies also dropped, sometimes more than the cost of the premius, leaving them with a higher net cost. 

Finally, the bill does something no insurance plan has ever done: cover undocumented residents, although they would not be eligible for the federal subsidy.

The bill sets up an enterprise, to be managed by the commissioner of insurance, which pays for the program with a fee levied on insurance plans. 

Bill sponsor Rep. CHris Kennedy explained Friday that the fee would replace a federal health insurance tax that was set up in 2010 to pay for the Affordable Care Act. The HIT is repealed as of Jan. 1, 2021. 

For nonprofit carriers, as introduced, SB215 levied a fee of 1% of premiums and 2% of premiums on for-profit carriers, who cried foul and claimed the higher fee would put them at a competitive disadvantage. 

That’s what led to the marathon negotiation session that took place Thursday and into Friday.

The House amended SB215 to hike the fee for the nonprofits to 1.15% and lowered the for-profit fee to 2.15%. 

Kennedy explained that the fee is now higher for the nonprofits than the federal HIT was. Those nonprofits are union shops Kaiser and Elevate, a carrier operated by Denver Health. 

Health insurance carriers, however, have pointed out that the fee, which would bring in $95 million in the initial years and up to $110 million in out years, will generate far more revenue than the program requires. That’s led to a claim that the fee would instead be a tax and violate the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. 

Kennedy and co-sponsor Rep. Julie McCluskie, a Dillon Democrat, point to the “business services” in the bill that would be provided to the health carriers as justification for the higher fee. 

They also amended the bill to limit the authority of the commissioner of insurance, responding to concerns that the commissioner could put in place a public option program on his own. 

SB 215 will require a final vote on Saturday and then go back to the Senate for concurrence on the amendments. 


Colorado lawmakers grapple with doing the people’s work when the people can’t be there

Colorado lawmakers grapple with doing the people’s work when the people can’t be there

Historic budget cuts are on the line as lawmakers seek to balance public access with pandemic precautions at the state Capitol

By John Herrick (May 15, 2020)

Temperature checks. A closed cafeteria. Spaced seating. Lawmakers in masks separated by plexiglass. This may be the new normal at the state Capitol when the legislature reconvenes as soon as May 26.  

The public health measures are needed for lawmakers to continue doing their work safely during the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down the legislature on March 14. Since then, the respiratory disease has killed more than 1,000 people in Colorado.  

The pandemic also has blown an estimated $3.3 billion hole in the state’s $30-plus billion budget due to the loss of sales and income tax revenue as businesses remain on standby and unemployment spikes. The seven lawmakers on the Joint Budget Committee have voted over the last two weeks to withhold a 3% pay increase for state workers, table capital construction projects and cut more than $100 million to higher education, among other cuts totaling more than $700 million. The committee is considering more cuts to the senior property tax exemption, the state’s contribution to the public employee’s retirement fund, K-12 funding, suicide prevention, substance use disorder treatment, mental health services, vaccine outreach, and health coverage for the uninsured and immigrants. 

But even as decisions that will affect most Coloradans are debated, public access to the Capitol and in-person access to lawmakers will be limited to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. The options being discussed include encouraging lobbyists not to gather in the halls outside the chambers and limiting seating in committee rooms and the public gallery above the House and Senate floors.

To make their voices heard, advocates say they are sending emails to lawmakers and hosting town halls and online forums. Some have been calling, texting and sending letters. Others say they are banding together and leveraging their networks. But, even so, they say, it’s not quite the same. 

“I definitely think there will be something lost. In-person communication is the best way to get to know someone,” said Dusti Gurule, the executive director of the advocacy organization Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights, or COLOR. “I hope it is something that [lawmakers] are thinking about — transparency and the voice of who is most impacted.” 

Questions remain about how to conduct legislative business during the pandemic. Democrats want to allow members who fear for their health to participate remotely despite objections from Republicans who say the Colorado constitution forbids it. Even if lawmakers allow remote participation by voting to amend procedural rules, it’s unclear how those tuning in from home would speak in floor debates, offer amendments or vote. And it’s still unclear whether reporters will have access to the floor of the House and Senate chambers, where they currently work during the session, in part given the need to spread lawmakers out to achieve social distancing. Unlike the current mandate for businesses in Colorado, lawmakers are planning to recommend — rather than require — that the public not enter the building with a temperature over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit and wear non-surgical face masks. 

“Do we have the ability to turn somebody away because they have a fever? Those are big questions,” said Sage Naumann, the spokesperson for the Senate GOP. “It’s really hard for the government to do that. That’s why you can’t be turned away for your opinions. That’s why you can’t be turned away for what you look like or the God you worship … People have a right to have their voices heard.”

Despite the two-month-long recess, much legislative work has occurred with little or no public notice. In part due to budget cuts, lawmakers have already abandoned big policy priorities without a vote, including a bill to set up a state-run health insurance plan known as the “Colorado Option” and a paid family and medical leave program, which advocates have demanded for the past six years and say is needed now more than ever. 

From afar, Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, said she has been watching the Joint Budget Committee cutting funding for education. She said this has created a lot of anxiety and despair. But she’s hopeful teachers are watching and will make their voices heard before further cuts are made. In previous years, the Colorado Education Association has organized rallies with thousands of teachers traveling to the Capitol. 

“In some ways, I think that there actually is the opportunity to have more eyes on them than normal because we have so many people who are in stay-at-home situations because they are not working,” Baca-Oehlert said. “My hope is that the public would tune in.”

But sometimes the public may not know to tune in. A gathering of more than two elected officials is considered a quorum and subject to open-meeting laws. But many of these public meetings are not being announced and may go unnoticed, said Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. 

“There are lots of conversations happening that the press and public has no inkling about,” Roberts said. “That’s the nature of what’s happening right now. These discussions are not happening at the Capitol. Or if they are happening at the Capitol, the press may not be allowed in there.” 

Besides, he said, not everyone has access to adequate internet or a computer to watch and participate in committee hearings remotely. 

The lack of remote access is just another iteration of a longstanding lack of access to state lawmakers among some communities in Colorado. Regular sessions are held during the day when working people may not be able to take time off. Others may not be able to drive hours to Denver. 

“Most of our people have always had an access issue,” said Jenny Davies, the co-founder of Progressive Promotions, a liberal advocacy group. “The structure of the legislature definitely privileges people who have more freedom and economic flexibility.” 

Committee meeting audio is available on each committees’ page on the Colorado General Assembly’s website. The Open Media Foundation films and records House and Senate floor debates and makes them available on the Colorado Channel website

On Monday, the eight-member Executive Committee plans to begin finalizing a plan for how to manage the pandemic for the second half of the session. And lawmakers say they are confident they can strike the right balance between public access and safety. 

“The public is such an important part of this. The legislature is the people’s house. We are there to be transparent and accountable to the people of this state,” said Rep. Chris Kennedy, a Democrat from Lakewood who has been helping work on the plan for remote participation among lawmakers. He said there will have to be greater emphasis placed on calling, texting and acknowledging written forms of communication. 

“I think that we don’t lose a lot as long as every legislator puts in the effort.” 


Democrats Say Pandemic Proves The Need For Paid Leave And Affordable Insurance, But It May Ruin Their Bills

Democrats Say Pandemic Proves The Need For Paid Leave And Affordable Insurance, But It May Ruin Their Bills

By Andrew Kenney (April 14, 2020)

Before the pandemic suspended normal life in Colorado, state lawmakers were getting ready to debate bills on two very big topics: health insurance reforms and paid leave for workers.

The COVID-19 crisis has lent a new sense of urgency to both those issues — while also making it less likely that lawmakers will act on them before the November elections.

“That’s not something that Republicans are celebrating or spiking the football. We realize that our colleagues on the other side of the aisle wanted to advance policies that they consider to be good, but the financial reality is probably working against those two bills,” said Republican Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert.

The state option bill was the talk of Colorado’s health care world just a few months ago, attracting hundreds of thousands of dollars in opposition spending from health industry groups. Gov. Jared Polis put his muscle behind it, saying in his State of the State address that hospitals needed to give up some of their profits. Polis’ goal is to create a new state-backed insurance option, with strict rules around its cost to consumers, and force hospitals to accept it.

“If it doesn’t happen this year, it would be disappointing, but it certainly would make sense to focus on other things,” said Democratic Rep. Dylan Roberts of Avon, a sponsor of the “state option” health bill. “However, a public health crisis makes it abundantly clear that more people need access to health treatment.”

More than 16 million people have filed for unemployment since the pandemic started taking off in the US. Because many Americans’ health insurance is tied to their work, that suggests a huge number of people are losing their coverage in the middle of a public health crisis.  

Budget overshadows other issues

The legislature is scheduled to return from its current recess on May 18. Colorado’s Supreme Court has ruled the session can continue past its original end date in order to make up for lost days during the pandemic. But it’s unclear how lawmakers might use that time. 

“If the epidemic is still raging and we’re still looking at pretty significant distancing measures, then we’re going to limit the scope of what we do,” said Democratic House Assistant Majority Leader Rep. Chris Kennedy of Lakewood, co-sponsor of the state option bill.

The General Assembly must pass the state’s budget before the state’s next fiscal year begins on July 1. Once they’ve done that though, lawmakers could temporarily adjourn once again, depending on the severity of the outbreak.

The budget could have a big impact on the fates of other major bills. Forecasters have cut $1 billion from the state’s expected revenues already, and as the pandemic drags on, further damage may force deep cuts to the budget. That could make the cost of setting up a public insurance option or a paid leave program unaffordable until things improve.

In the meantime, lawmakers are connecting by phone and Zoom to suss out whether their bills can move forward.

“Our bandwidth as a general assembly is going to be significantly narrower than we thought it would be a month ago,” Gray said. “The path for anything gets harder when you have significantly narrower bandwidth.”

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State Lawmakers Unveil ‘Colorado Affordable Health Care Option’

State Lawmakers Unveil ‘Colorado Affordable Health Care Option’

By Shaun Boyd (March 5, 2020)

DENVER (CBS4) – After years of talking about a public health insurance option, state lawmakers have introduced a bill to create the Colorado Affordable Health Care Option. It is a public-private insurance plan.

Under the bill, the state would force insurance companies to sell the plan in every county and every hospital would accept it or risk losing their license. The state would also set reimbursement rates based largely on a percentage of what Medicare pays.

“The Colorado Health Care Option will hold corporate health care profits accountable,” said Representative Dylan Roberts, lead sponsor of the bill.

Initially, the plan would be open to about 8 percent of Coloradans who buy their own insurance. Eventually, it would be expanded to the small group market. Co-sponsor Representative Chris Kennedy said the goal is to force down premiums for everyone.

“Now is not the time for tinkering around the edges and working on small policies to make small differences,” said Rep. Kennedy.

Heidi Baskfield with Children’s Hospital said government price controls could force hospitals to shift costs to employer based insurance, driving up premiums for everyone.

“Only coming after hospitals for what is a much larger health care issue is tinkering around the edges,” said Baskfield.

Amanda Massey with the Colorado Alliance of Health Insurers warned too of unintended consequences. She says insurers will lose money administering the plan for the state and some might leave Colorado.

“I think insurers will have to make very difficult decisions,” said Massey.

Roberts isn’t convinced. The state option, he said, only impacts about 300,000 Coloradans who buy their own insurance now. He said those who switch to the state option will see a 9-20 percent reduction in premiums.

“We cannot tell the people of Colorado that the status quo is okay. The Colorado Option is the first guarantee that they will have an affordable choice on the individual market,” said Roberts.

No one has to switch to the state plan but if they don’t, they could end up paying even more than they do now. Most of those who buy their own insurance get federal tax subsidies and those would drop. The bill sponsors are seeking a federal waiver to address that, as well as working on republican support for the bill.

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Gov. Polis unveils his updated roadmap to saving people money on health care

Gov. Polis unveils his updated roadmap to saving people money on health care

By Meghan Lopez (February 28, 2020)

DENVER — Surrounded by health care advocates and fellow Democrats, Governor Jared Polis unveiled his updated Roadmap to Saving Coloradans Money on Health Care.

Last time around, the road map included six things: increase hospital price transparency, establish a reinsurance pool, negotiate to drive down the cost of health insurance, lower hospital prices, reduce out-of-pocket costs and lower the cost of prescription drugs.

During Thursday’s unveiling, the Governor touted the accomplishments of last session in all six of these areas while admitting there is still a lot of work to be done.

“When it comes to health care, there is no silver bullet; there is a lot of hard work that your legislators and public officials and others need to do,” Gov. Polis said.

This time around, the newly unveiled roadmap includes five areas he would like to expand upon: adopting a public option, expanding insurance purchasing alliances, increasing drug price transparency, supporting primary and preventative care availability and implementing behavioral health reforms.

“It isn’t just one simple answer that solves it, it is a combination of many, many strategies coordinated between the Governor’s office and the legislature to try to make these changes and we’re going to be working on this for many years,” said Rep. Chris Kennedy, who co-sponsored some of last year’s health care bills.

Reinsurance was one of the biggest health care pieces to come out of the Colorado capitol last legislative session. It is an effort to bring down health insurance premiums for everyone by helping insurance companies cover the claims of the most expensive clients, including those with chronic or complex conditions.

However, in the months after the program was implemented, while many people saw their premiums go down, some Coloradans experienced the opposite.

“Their premiums did go down, but in some cases, their federal tax credit went down even more, so we’re working on finding federal funding sources to backfill them to make sure no one was harmed by that,” Rep. Kennedy said.

Part of the reason he believes the reinsurance program didn’t lower costs for everyone is because the health care system as a whole is complicated and something he considers to be patchwork.

Despite this, Rep. Kennedy believes the reinsurance program was an important first step to providing immediate relief to consumers.

This year, the governor is pushing for legislators to pass a bill to adopt the public option, where the state would offer a health insurance plan.

Opponents of the idea, like Rep. Patrick Neville, R-Douglas County, believe this idea is taking health insurance in the wrong direction that could end up costing people more money.

“They all might sound like a good idea, but in aggregate, that’s going to increase prices throughout the state,” Rep. Neville said.

He believes the public option would move the state one step closer to a single-payer system that could put some doctors out of business.

Instead, what he would like to see done is alleviating some of the compliance costs in health care and adding more price transparency, so people understand exactly what they are paying for. In fact, he predicts a shortage of health care providers if the public option passes.

Democratic lawmakers are also considering bills like covering the cost of fertility treatment. But with all the things Democrats are hoping to add, there are questions over how to cut costs while adding coverage options.

“It’s very important to get the big things done to reduce costs. You can do a few small things with the savings, like expand coverage and access with some of the savings as long as the bulk of them are passed along to consumers,” Gov. Polis said. “But, if you don’t generate the savings, there’s no savings to go to things like (fertility treatment coverage), so as we look at reducing savings to Colorado and I think a small part of that can go back into improving quality of healthcare, but obviously most of that needs to help the bottom line of consumers.”

Rep. Neville, on the other hand, disagrees with the Governor’s assessment and says this question of how to add more services while cutting overall costs highlights the problem.

“I don’t think there is a balance and that’s a fact that we have to face. The more we add, the higher the cost coverage is going to go and that’s a big reason why the healthcare costs of soared through Obamacare,” he said.

For Rep. Kennedy, though, the cost is not the only thing that matters. He argues that lower costs won’t help if they don’t cover enough. Ultimately, he believes Medicaid for All is the long-term solution to the state and country’s many health care challenges.

As President Trump and Democratic candidates discuss their ideas for health care, in the end, Gov. Polis says the state of Colorado can’t afford to wait for the federal government, so it will be up to lawmakers to decide how the state should combat the rising cost of health care.

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Major Grant Awarded for Rural Substance Use Treatment Center in Salida

Major Grant Awarded for Rural Substance Use Treatment Center in Salida

Special to Daily Record (February 14, 2020)

“A 13,000 square mile donut hole, smack dab across the middle of our state,” is how Brian Turner, CEO of Solvista Health, describes the gap in appropriate behavioral health services for a massive swath of Colorado.

“Our state ranks in the top 10 nationally for alarming rates of drug and alcohol problems, and yet we are also among the highest for unmet treatment needs,” says Turner.  “We have never had the appropriate higher levels of care available in rural Colorado and people are forced to travel all the way to Denver, Colorado Springs or Grand Junction for help. It’s time that changes.”

Turner announced that Solvista Health was recently awarded a $700,000 grant to help build a comprehensive Regional Assessment Center to treat mental health and substance use needs in the region. The grant is made possible through Colorado House Bill 19-1287, which passed last legislative session at the Colorado State Capitol and targeted treatment in rural and frontier counties. The bill was crafted by the Opioid and Substance Use Disorder Interim Committee of the legislature and had broad bipartisan support, including passing the State Senate by unanimous vote.

“Fighting for rural Colorado is a constant battle here at the Capitol,” said Representative Jim Wilson. “It is great to win one once in a while, particularly one of this magnitude, for my community.”

The award was made by AspenPointe MSO and the Colorado Office of Behavioral Health, who are championing an infusion of resources to tackle the opioid epidemic and substance abuse statewide. The grant will specifically support the development of a withdrawal management and recovery center for substance abuse.

“While Solvista Health and other providers have been working hard to expand a variety of treatment options in the region, this will be the first of its kind providing a higher level of care,” said Turner. “Research shows an undeniable connection between substance use, mental health, and overall health. So, we have teamed up with our local partners and community leaders to design an option that will provide an integrated, comprehensive approach.”

Solvista Health is hoping to raise $6.5 million to realize the full vision of a Regional Assessment Center that will serve Chaffee, Custer, Fremont, Lake, Park, and surrounding counties. The facility will be located on the Heart of the Rockies Regional Medical Center campus in Salida and is an example of the growing collaboration between the two nonprofit organizations. The cooperation doesn’t end there. Planning has been underway largely through the Region 13 Substance Abuse Regional Coalition (SARC) and will continue with increased engagement and feedback from community members.

“We are thrilled to be a partner in this effort alongside so many others,” said Dave Henson, Executive Director for Chaffee County Department of Human Services. “Over 50 public and private organizations signed on in support of this grant proposal across the region. We recognize the power of collaboration and share the goal of making our communities a healthy, thriving place for everyone to live, work and play.”

Construction is expected to begin this summer with a goal of opening by early 2021. Tax-deductible contributions can be made by contacting

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County redistricting bill seeks to avoid appearance of partisan gerrymandering

County redistricting bill seeks to avoid appearance of partisan gerrymandering

By Marianne Goodland (January 27, 2020)

In 2018, voters said “enough” to the potential for partisan gerrymandering at the state and congressional level.

They approved, by better than 2:1 margins, Amendments Y and Z, which set up independent commissions, to be comprised of Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters, who would handle the creation of new congressional (Y) and legislative (Z) district maps after the 2020 Census.

So who draws districts for county commissioners? As it turns out, it’s the commissioners themselves.

Assistant House Majority Leader Chris Kennedy, D-Lakewood, and Rep. Colin Larson, R-Littleton, think copying the system set up for Y and Z is a good idea, and that forms the basis for House Bill 1073, which will be heard in the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee on Thursday.

The bill is drawing strong opposition from some of Colorado’s counties due to concerns it is an unfunded mandate.

And Kennedy admits it is.

The bill as it currently stands would apply only to the state’s largest counties that have five commissioners: Arapahoe, El Paso and Weld. An additional seven — those with populations that exceed 70,000 — could eventually be included, including Boulder, Jefferson and Mesa, if those counties choose to go to five commissioners (they all have three now, but some are considering going to five).

The only large counties that would be exempt: Broomfield and Denver, which are combined city/county but are governed by city councils, not county commissions.

Under the bill, a 7-member independent commission, assisted by nonpartisan staff, would take charge of drawing district maps. The commission would be made up of two Democrats, two Republicans and three unaffiliated voters, and maps would be approved by a simple majority. Kennedy said creating the 12-member commissions set up in Y and Z would be too unwieldy.

The commissions would use criteria in this order:

  • equal population and the Voting Rights Act;
  • communities of interest, political subdivisions and compactness;
  • competitiveness; and
  • no protection for incumbents.

Under the bill, the maps commission would meet in public meetings and the maps would be subject to judicial review.

Another provision of the bill would change current state law to allow for larger precincts, up to 4,000 people each, to address another problem: constant redrawing of precinct maps every time the population surges.

In Jefferson County, that’s meant redrawing precinct maps every two years, which is allowed under the law, for whenever a precinct exceeds 2,000 people.

“It’s the Wild West,” Kennedy recently told Colorado Politics, when asked why he wants to change the system.

“When it comes to the way counties draw their maps, the only rule is equal population and the Voting Rights Act,” he explained. That means the county commissioners are drawing their own districts. In most of the state, it’s not a big deal, he said, since the three commissioners run county-wide but have to live in the districts they represent. Kennedy said there’s no evidence that the system for drawing districts has been abused, so his bill is intended to be proactive.

In the counties with five commissioners, either home rule or one larger than 70,000 people, there are three options for how commissioners are selected. It’s either five who are elected by the voters in the districts in which they live (Arapahoe and El Paso), five where commissioners must live in their districts but are elected county-wide (Adams), or three who live in the districts they represent and two more who are at-large (Weld).

Jefferson County has three commissioners but talk in the county around going to five has been around for years, Kennedy said. But going to five has also raised concerns about gerrymandering.

Kennedy advocates for five commissioners, all required to live and be elected from the district they represent. Given the size of Jefferson County, “you can’t possibly get around” to the whole county, he said. In order to help Jeffco go to five, Kennedy said he wanted to offer them the protection against gerrymandering.

Kennedy believes larger counties will have the staffing, and even some have GIS software that can handle the map-drawing process.

“I believe because we have unanimous support” for state and congressional redistricting (from the General Assembly in 2018), it makes sense to model county redistricting in the same way, he said.

Kennedy and Larson met with stakeholders last week, including representatives from Arapahoe, Boulder, El Paso and Jefferson counties as well as from the County Clerks Association.

“This restores faith in the system” and matches what voters intended with Y and Z, Larson told the group.

Arapahoe County spokesman Luc Hatlestad told Colorado Politics that the county’s commissioners have already voted to oppose the bill, citing chiefly its unfunded mandate as well as concerns about the amount of time such a process would require. They estimated it would cost about $21,000 to pay the retired county judges who would choose the mapping commission members.

In fact, the bill’s fiscal note comes in with a much larger figure: $75,000 to $135,000 per county, but that also includes paying for staff time, computer equipment and software, legal expenses and travel and per diem costs.

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