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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