As demonstrators called for keeping the status quo, Colorado Senate Republicans on Tuesday argued the case for what is so far a one-party effort to repeal the state’s health-insurance exchange.
Dozens of activists and some Democratic lawmakers gathered on the steps outside the legislature for a demonstration opposing the Republican effort to repeal Connect for Health Colorado, the state’s marketplace for purchasing health insurance.
The bill was scheduled for a hearing in the legislature on Tuesday, but it was postponed until next week. Democrats accused Republicans of delaying the hearing on account of the protest, though Republicans say they wanted to gather more information before the legislative committee meets to discuss the measure.
The protesters’ message evolved quickly from defending the state health exchange to speaking out for the federal Affordable Care Act.
For freshman Sen. Jim Smallwood, R-Parker, conflating the two issues is a bit frustrating.
“What you heard today was the obvious fear of Washington making bad decisions, and I think that’s completely justified,” Smallwood, who is carrying the legislation to eliminate the exchange, said of the protests.
“But I don’t want that to get confused with Senate Bill 3, which is simply changing the purchasing platform in January of 2018 from Connect for Health to healthcare.gov, where people can buy like they do in 38 other states the same policies from the same insurance companies with the same subsidies and the same set of rules around it.”
Smallwood has a background in insurance brokerage. He made the Affordable Care Act a priority of his campaign, promising to help people navigate the “largest challenge businesses and families have faced in recent memory: Obamacare.”
The senator said his proposal would preserve aspects of the Affordable Care Act that are “universally” supported, including covering pre-existing conditions and maternity costs.
While the exchange was established in 2011 with bipartisan support, it does not appear the effort to end it will carry that same support across the aisle. Democrats have been reluctant to back the proposal, meaning it faces an uphill battle in the Democratic-controlled House.
Under Smallwood’s proposal, the exchange would be repealed on Jan. 1, 2018, though it would be allowed to continue for one year after. Any leftover money would be transferred to the general fund for discretionary spending.
Smallwood lamented that despite the exchange, insurance rates in Colorado have skyrocketed, especially in rural parts of the state, and fewer companies are offering plans. He said taxpayers should not be providing millions of dollars for a system that has not worked.
Connect for Health has also faced unflattering audits, in which problems with dozens of payments and reimbursements were exposed.
“I don’t see the math working going forward,” Smallwood said.
Connect for Health officials, however, say the marketplace is empowering Coloradans. It announced on Tuesday that it is giving consumers who attempt to enroll by the Jan. 31 deadline three more days to complete their enrollment, in response to a surge in signups.
The repeal would come as uncertainty surrounds what a Republican Congress will do with the Affordable Care Act. Since the exchange was born out of the ACA, it’s possible that a repeal of the federal health care law would send the issue back to the states to resolve, in which an exchange might still be required.
“We cannot control what happens in Washington,” Smallwood responded. “We have to make plans for what we’re doing in the state of Colorado given the information that we have today.”
That said, he could not offer any assurances that the repeal would lead to lower premiums.
“Anybody that knows anything about health care is not going to guarantee that just making this change alone is going to lower people’s premiums,” Smallwood said. “There’s a lot of levers that need to be pulled in order for that to happen.”
Outside the Capitol, throngs of Coloradans told stories of how the Affordable Care Act and access to the exchange allowed them to find insurance and save medical costs that would have otherwise bankrupted them.
“I felt ashamed and humiliated each time I was reminded that I could not get the kind of care others have because of my pre-existing conditions,” said Shelly Joy, who worked as a marriage counselor until she was diagnosed with a chronic illness.
Senate Democratic Leader Lucia Guzman of Denver added, “Do they really want to pull the plug on these hundreds of thousands of hardworking people in Colorado? Yes, they do. But we’re here to voice against it.”