Chris Kennedy public option

State Rep. Chris Kennedy, D-Lakewood, speaks  before the introduction fo a bill that would have created a public option insurance program for the state at a press conference March 5, 2020.

Though it came as little surprise, Democratic legislators behind Colorado's proposed public option law said in a jointly written op-ed in The Denver Post that they're withdrawing the bill this year.

"We will continue to not only work on the Colorado Option over the next months and year but also fight to make sure the healthcare industry focuses on people, not profits, and we will look for any possible solution to support those who lose health care or simply lack access to it," Sen. Kerry Donovan of Vail and Reps. Chris Kennedy of Lakewood and Dylan Roberts of Avon wrote in the newspaper Monday. The proposal sought to create a public-private insurance policy to compete with existing insurers with below-market rates fueled by cost controls places on the health care industry, primarily hospitals.

They cited the difficulties in government under the circumstances of a state health emergency and "take the job of writing law very seriously and believe in a transparent, public, and accessible process."

The bill was introduced with great fanfare on March 5 and passed its first committee two days before the legislature adjourned under the coronavirus emergency on March 14.

When lawmakers return to the Capitol on May 18, they will be focused on passing the state budget that takes effect July 1, the School Finance Act, renewing state programs and agencies that are scheduled to "sunset" and emergency measures aimed at dealing with the pandemic and the cratering state economy.

Lawmakers are expected to be consumed by the deep cuts across every aspect of state government as they face a deficit next year that could reach $3 billion.

Political players behind the public option, while not announcing a final decision until Monday, have said for weeks it's unlikely they'll be able to finish work on the contentious bill this year. Price caps on health care — and the cost-sharing it might force — were expected to be a major fight during this legislative session, as key part of Gov. Jared Polis' agenda going into the election this fall for legislators.

Putting limits on what hospitals could charge in the present political environment could have proved a difficult choice for some lawmakers, endangered the bills passage if the three sponsors had dared run it.

“We’re still working on that bill and no decisions have been made whether it will move forward when we go back to the legislature,” Roberts said on a conference call with health care advocates last Thursday.

He added later in the discussion, “We still hope to bring it forward this year, but regardless it’s an idea that will move forward at some point. We need to give people more options and more choice and the Colorado Option is a way to do that.” 

In a press release Monday morning, Kennedy said before the bill was introduced in March, "[W]e sought robust engagement with nurses, pharmacists, EMTs, doctors, and hospital staff. We plan to engage them after we emerge from this pandemic, and come out with stronger legislation that increases access to affordable healthcare across Colorado.”

Chris Tholen, president and CEO of the Colorado Hospital Association, said in a statement he appreciated the sponsors pulling the bill in the wake of the pandemic.

“This public health crisis has changed many things for Coloradans personally, for our health care system and for our state," he 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."

Tholen said the association and its members are committed to providing access and affordable care.

“We look forward to getting back to work with our legislators very soon and developing solutions that do not adversely impact Colorado hospitals, on whom people depend to provide access to care, and which will have suffered a projected $3 billion financing blow from the COVID-19 pandemic by the end of this year,” he stated.

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