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From left: James Iacino, Diane Mitsch Bush, Scott Tipton, Lauren Boebert

With some of the highest health care and health-insurance costs in the state, Colorado’s massive 3rd Congressional District could be won or lost in the bitter debate over which candidate has the best health plan for emerging from the COVID-19 crisis.

Incumbent five-term U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, a Cortez Republican, faces a surprisingly spirited primary challenge from Rifle restaurateur Lauren Boebert – the owner of the open-carry hotspot Shooters Grill who top-lined in the virtual Republican assembly after Tipton petitioned onto the June 30 primary ballot.

The Third CD is the only district to have both a Republican and Democratic primary: Among Democrats, the race pits former state lawmaker, social scientist, educator and Routt County commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush against Ridgway resident and Seattle Fish Company owner James Iacino.

Boebert, who argues Tipton hasn’t done enough to promote the state’s oil and gas industry, wants more high-paying jobs in the fossil fuel sector and for the rural parts of Colorado to reopen more rapidly despite the coronavirus pandemic. She is generally critical of Congress’s COVID-19 response.

Tipton campaign spokesman Michael Fortney of Clear Creek Strategies counters the congressman has been on the front line of battling for small businesses during the crisis in CD3, which includes all or part of 29 Colorado counties and stretches from Pueblo to Steamboat to Grand Junction.

“In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Congressman Tipton has helped secure forgivable loans for small businesses and nonprofits, worked to make sure rural hospitals were also eligible for these loans and has ensured rural Colorado's agriculture community is not left behind,” Fortney said, pointing to a list of COVID-19 actions. “These other folks can keep playing politics; Congressman Tipton will keep working for the communities he represents.”

But when asked about Tipton’s overall record on health care, particularly as it relates to repeated GOP attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and its protections for people with preexisting conditions and Medicaid expansion, Fortney did not respond on the record.

Some Western Slope counties with only one insurance provider on the ACA market see individual market premiums for a family of four in excess of $2,000 a month

“No, it's not affordable, and that's something that Tipton promised us that he would go to D.C. and get under control,” Boebert said. “We have some of the highest health insurance rates in the country because of the way the insurance carriers look at risk factors in smaller markets.

“I'm just for free markets, and this is why we should be able to buy health insurance across state lines and join together to get group discounts.”

Boebert, who has four boys with her husband who’s a contract natural gas worker, said her family just rolls the dice without health insurance, taking the risk on catastrophic injury.

“We're a family of six and we haven't had health insurance for, gosh, maybe three years, maybe more than that,” Boebert said. “We had it temporarily after Obamacare for a little bit, but it was cheaper for us to pay the fines even as they increased annually and then take care of anything else out of pocket.”

President Donald Trump’s signature 2017 tax bill did away the ACA’s tax penalties for not having health insurance – the basis now for a legal challenge by Republican state attorneys general, led by Texas, that will likely be decided by the Supreme Court next year.

Tipton’s potential Democratic challengers accuse the congressman of trying to undermine the most popular parts of the ACA – its guaranteed coverage for people with preexisting conditions – at a time when the country is being ravaged by a viral pandemic.

“The other thing where Tipton is missing the boat and if I were your congress person I would have been on day one is that people who lose their jobs lose their health insurance, unless they want to pay COBRA, which is very, very expensive,” Mitsch Bush said. “The first thing to do is make sure that the federal exchange and the state exchanges have an open enrollment period that lasts until this curve is flattened. That's what I would do.”

Mitsch Bush said Tipton is also “missing the boat” by overly backing the fossil fuel industry despite climate change, marching in lockstep with Trump and disregarding the coronavirus.

“Ignoring science is what we've seen writ large in this administration and by Tipton, and that's one of the reasons we are in the fix we're in now,” Mitsch Bush said of Tipton, who is a co-chair of Trump’s Colorado reelection campaign.

Iacino, executive chairman and part-owner of the 102-year-old, Denver-based Seattle Fish Co., top-lined Mitsch Bush by a scant seven votes in the virtual CD3 state assembly. He hopes to ride that momentum to a June 30 primary win over Mitsch Bush, who lost to Tipton by around 8 percentage points in 2018.

Iacino also points to health care and runaway rates on the Western Slope as one of his top issues.

“I hear from people throughout the district that 2,000-plus dollars a month for essentially a silver, high-deductible plan is absolutely not affordable and it's why people are having to work two or three jobs just to get by,” Iacino said. “They can't save for retirement. They can't save for education for their kids, because all of their costs are going to housing and health care.”

Iacino supports a national pubic option to provide insurance competition in rural areas.

“That's something that has not been addressed by Tipton,” Iacino added. “His answer is full deregulation, 100% private markets, slash Medicaid, slash Medicare, and let the market take care of itself, and clearly that has not worked for people. Premiums have gone up over 60% since he's been in office over the last 10 years and he's had no plan to help reduce those costs.”

This story has been changed to clarify James Iacino's description.

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