Valley’s legislators work on health care coverage relief | AspenTimes.com

Valley’s legislators work on health care coverage relief

Sen. Kerry Donovan, left, and Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush held a town hall meeting at Heather's restaurant in Basalt on Saturday. The two Democrats outlined the 2016 legislative session at the midpoint.

The Roaring Fork Valley's legislators have introduced a bill to study how creating a single geographic rating area for health insurers in Colorado would affect insurance premiums.

Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush and Sen. Kerry Donovan said during a town hall meeting in Basalt on Saturday that working folks who aren't on a good group insurance plan are paying too much for health care coverage.

"This is getting dismissed as a rich ski-town problem," said Donovan, a Vail Democrat whose district includes Pitkin and Eagle counties. Some state officials contend that everything in the mountain towns is more expensive so the higher insurance premiums are just part of life, she said. The reasoning borders on "insulting," according to Donovan.

Mitsch Bush, a Steamboat Springs Democrat, said the reality is many residents of mountain areas work multiple jobs to get by and their incomes are lower than that of Front Range residents. She represents El Jebel and part of Basalt because her district encompasses Eagle and Route counties.

Donovan and Mitsch Bush co-sponsored a bill that was introduced last week to gather facts about using a single rating area when establishing rates for individual insurance plans. Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, and Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, are co-sponsors. Hamner represents Aspen and Pitkin County. Rankin represents Garfield County.

Audience wants insurance relief

The assumption is a single geographic rating area would lower premiums for the mountain areas and raise premiums for the rest of the state, Mitsch Bush said. The study will determine if that is true and, if so, how much it would affect premiums. Critics say the current rating system allows the few insurance companies that serve the mountains to jack up rates.

The bill faces a "tight turn-around" this session, but information about the single rating area should be available by summer, Donovan said.

Audience members welcomed news of the bill.

"We are stuck in a squeeze," a man said. "We have the highest rates in the country. There's no excuse for it."

Pitkin County Commissioner George Newman said there's a false assumption that everyone in the Aspen area is wealthy. In fact, about 25 percent of Pitkin County residents have incomes below the poverty line, he said.

Public lands bill politicized

The legislators covered a broad range of topics for a crowd of about 25 people that attended the meeting at Heather's restaurant and bar in Basalt. They hold a series of town hall meetings throughout the legislative session, which starts in January and ends in May. Mitsch Bush is up for re-election this year. Donovan is in the middle of a four-year term.

They said getting a bill passed this year is difficult because the parties split control of the chambers. The Democrats have the majority in the House while the Republicans control the Senate.

"The Senate leadership is very extreme, very extreme. I'll leave it at that," Mitsch Bush said.

A prime example was the politicizing of Donovan's bill to establish a Public Lands Day.

There is a growing movement in Colorado and in other states to study transferring lands from the federal government to the states. Critics are suspicious that proponents want to extract resources without the hassles of the federal National Environmental Policy Act.

Donovan said one of her proudest moments in the Legislature was helping defeat a bill last year that favored state acquisition of federal lands.

"So this year, I just wanted to send a positive message," she said. She proposed designating a Saturday in March as Public Lands Day. "Across the spectrum we love our public lands," she said.

The Senate leaders assigned her bill to a so-called "kill committee," Donovan said. It turned out it wouldn't die quietly because of public scrutiny and interest. Republicans realized they had to act on it.

The bill was passed by the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee but only after an amendment was passed that criticizes how federal agencies have managed and regulated lands in the West. The full Senate passed the measure, so now it goes to the House.

The version that the Republicans amended includes "horrible" language, Mitsch Bush said. She will sponsor it in the House, but that language will be eliminated, she vowed.

Donovan responds to Pitkin County

Donovan also addressed criticism from the Pitkin County commissioners over her bill on broadband issues in rural areas. The commissioners sent Donovan a letter last week saying the bill would make it tougher for them to work with a private company to provide better broadband service in rural areas. Pitkin County is among areas that opted out of a 2005 state provision that forbids governments from competing with the private broadband-service industry.

Donovan explained that the telecommunications industry is one of the most powerful lobbying interests at the state capitol. Her bill was designed to help rural areas, not create hurdles for them, she said. However, Senate Republican leaders called the bill up before she was ready. It was only 85 percent polished, she said. She indicated she will let the bill die and bring it back, more polished, next year.

scondon@aspentimes.com