Eagle County Dems hit pause on effort for public health insurance option

Nate Peterson
Vail Daily
State Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, speaks at a news conference about the introduction of a public health insurance option in Colorado at the state Capitol on Thursday, March 5, 2020, as Rep. Dylan Roberts looks on.
Jesse Paul | The Colorado Sun

The push led by Eagle County’s two state legislators, Rep. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, and Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, to pass a bill creating a public health insurance option in Colorado is on hold for now.

Roberts said Monday that setting aside the effort until 2021 was “the right thing” for Democrats in the Legislature, given the state budget uncertainty brought on by the economic slowdown from coronavirus.

“While we still really want to get this bill done — and we do think that a global health pandemic, which has caused millions of people to lose their jobs, and their employer-based health insurance, clearly shows why we need the public option — we need to make sure we’re doing it the right way,” Roberts said.

“The very people we need to work on it with are obviously focused on other stuff. We can’t give them one more thing to do right now,” Donovan told the Colorado Sun. “Ultimately it was time for doctors and nurses and EMTs to focus on the coronavirus, not helping us to write a really important piece of legislation where the details were really important to get right.”

An ambitious goal, an intense fight

House Bill 1349, which has encountered fierce opposition from the Colorado Hospital Association and health insurance companies, passed its first committee hearing in early March. The bill would compel private insurers to offer a public health insurance plan in the 22 Colorado counties that have just a single provider offering plans on the individual market. The number of Colorado’s 64 counties with just one insurance option on the individual market, which includes Eagle County, is likely to go up as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Roberts said.

The individual market currently insures approximately 300,000 Coloradans, so, in theory, the public option — which the state would oversee — would provide another option to those whose current choice is to go with the only provider available or to go uninsured.

Estimates indicate that anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 Coloradans who are currently uninsured would purchase the public option because of its affordability, Roberts said.

“Sen. Donovan and I campaigned two years ago on the pledge to go down to Denver and help lower health insurance costs and get people more access to care,” Roberts said. “And we’ve already passed a few really important things like reinsurance and tapping drug costs and health care co-ops and things like that, which we’re going to fight to protect and make sure those stay in place. This was always a multi-year effort to get the Colorado option off the ground. We’re very, very confident we’re still going to be able to do that. It’s just going to have to wait another year, just like a lot of things are, because of the coronavirus.”

Proponents of the legislation pointed to Colorado hospitals’ profits as being a prime reason for why the bill is needed. Hospitals pushed back on the perception that they are flush with cash.

Groups linked to hospital and insurance interests launched high-dollar television and Facebook ad campaigns against the effort.

Two of the most controversial aspects of the proposal were a clause that would have allowed state officials to dictate hospital prices for those covered by a public option plan and another that would have required both hospitals and insurance companies to participate in the effort.

In a statement, Chris Tholen, the president and CEO of the Colorado Hospital Association, said he appreciates the bill sponsors withdrawing the proposal this year. But he said Colorado hospitals could see as much as a $3 billion hit from the coronavirus this year. So, he said, any future proposal must not adversely affect hospitals financially.

“This public health crisis has changed many things for Coloradans personally, for our health care system and for our state,” Tholen said. “It has illustrated the critical role that hospitals play to serve their communities, respond to crises and protect the health of our state. It has also demonstrated how crucial it is to support our health care infrastructure — including protecting our front-line workers and facilities that are essential to pandemic response.”

“I would say that I was surprised by the amount of money that got spent against this bill, but we anticipated that there would be opposition and, of course, there will continue to be opposition because the status quo is really powerful,” Roberts said. “The status quo for-profit health care industry wants to protect their profits and Colorado hospitals have extremely high profits. The second-highest in the nation. Most will recover just fine from this coronavirus pandemic and be back at their normal profit levels very soon. We want to try to refocus the debate and make sure that access to care and patients’ health is prioritized. And we believe that hospitals can still remain profitable with a Colorado option being in place.”

Jesse Paul of The Colorado Sun contributed reporting to this story.