Colorado Public Health Insurance Option

The Colorado Option Health Benefit Plan, also known as the public option bill, is likely just days away from introduction. In preparation for its rollout, backers announced a coalition Tuesday that will be on the front lines of advocating for the bill.

The Colorado Coalition for Healthcare Options includes advocates such as the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative, Healthier Colorado, the Colorado Chapter of the Committee to Protect Medicare, the Colorado Children’s Campaign, One Colorado, Good Business Colorado, Small Business Majority, the Colorado Fiscal Institute, Centennial State Prosperity, Young Invincibles and the American Diabetes Association.

In a statement Tuesday, the coalition said "more affordable health care options will provide patients and their families the security and freedom to take control of their health without breaking the bank. Lowering health costs will help Colorado families who worry about how they’ll pay for a needed procedure or visit. It’s critical that Colorado take the necessary steps to ensure everyone has access to the care they need to live healthy lives."

"The industry has tried everything they can to scare people into thinking better access to cheaper care is a bad thing," said Healthier Colorado executive director Jake Williams. "They've even reverted to spreading falsehoods among communities who have endured systemic racism from the healthcare industry and have been the most impacted by the pandemic. The truth is a Colorado Health Insurance Option will expand access to care and drive down out-of-pocket costs. If the past year has taught us anything, it is that the status quo benefits the wealthy few while working Coloradans and small businesses suffer."

The environment for public option legislation in 2021 is not the same as it was in 2020; the authors have had more time to refine the bill, and more important for its proponents, at least two Democratic senators in 2020 who were not quite as fond of the proposals are no longer in the chamber. 

The two senators — Angela Williams of Denver and Nancy Todd of Aurora — are both gone. Williams decided not to run for re-election and Todd was term-limited. In addition, Democrats picked up one more seat, giving them a 20-15 advantage and some breathing room in case of defections. 

Backers also point to the changes made in the 2021 version, as first reported by Colorado Politics two weeks ago. The health insurance, hospital and pharmaceutical industries have two years, starting in 2022, to come up with a way to cut health costs — and the health insurance premiums that pay those bills — by 20% for the individual market. That's people who buy their own health insurance rather than getting it from an employer, who make up about 8% of the total insured market. 

The two-year plan is a suggestion that came from the industry, according to state Rep. Dylan Roberts, D-Eagle, the bill's House sponsor.

“We won’t tell them how to do it; they’ve told us repeatedly over the years that they know healthcare costs are a problem, but that they want to work on it on their own to address it," he told Colorado Politics earlier this month.

But the carrot comes with a stick: If the industries fail to come up with those statewide savings, the state would move to a quasi-public option plan for both the individual and small group markets, which represent about 15% of all insured. That plan would include price controls that would result in those premium savings, according to proponents.

Is it workable? Industry experts are skeptical.

"We have a long way to go to see if the draft [released March 2] really sets the market up for success in phase one, or if it seems to be a predetermined outcome that we will migrate to phase two. Obviously that’s not our preference," according to Katherine Mulready of the Colorado Hospital Association. 

The coalition intends to launch its own public awareness campaign, but it will be a far cry from the million-dollar campaign being waged by opponents to the bill. 

Colorado's Health Care Future, a project of the healthcare industry group Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, launched a multi-pronged and million-dollar campaign two weeks ago, including TV, radio and social media advertisements as well as regular news releases and statements to the media. 

Tuesday, that included a news release on a report by the conservative business-advocacy group Common Sense Institute. The statement said the report, which compared Colorado health insurance premiums to Washington state's public option plan, "should raise the alarm to Colorado lawmakers considering a similar approach that a state government option is not a good deal for health insurance."

According to the CSI report, Colorado has more affordable premiums than Washington state for the 2021 plan year. "Average benchmark premiums in the ACA marketplace are 9.5% lower in Colorado than Washington State," the statement said. 

Backers of the public option acknowledge they can't compete with the dollars being spent by the opposition, but they point to something more valuable: a Democratic-backed House and Senate and a Democrat in the governor's mansion who announced during his State of the State address on Feb. 17 that lawmakers are prepared to pass some form of the bill this year. 

"We also look forward to adding an affordable Colorado Option that gives Coloradans, especially in rural areas, more choice and savings when it comes to selecting a health care plan," Gov. Jared Polis said last month.

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