Governor Signs Bill Hiking Health Insurance Availability

By Patrick Malone, The Pueblo Chieftain

LAKEWOOD — The road was bumpy and at times detoured through precarious spots that led to its placement on life support, but a bill that establishes heath insurance exchanges in Colorado arrived safely at its destination on Wednesday, when Gov. John Hickenlooper signed it into law at St. Anthony Hospital.

The law, SB200, establishes an online insurance marketplace that allows small businesses and individuals to congregate as consumers and negotiate health coverage and premium prices in an expanded risk pool, much like larger businesses traditionally have enjoyed.

“It gives Coloradans more control, more options, more choices and allows us to make better decisions — all of us — when we’re making health care decisions,” Hickenlooper said.

Expanding access to health care and maintaining or reducing its price are the key benefits that Hickenlooper expects will result from the new law.

Federal health care reforms passed last year, which were endorsed by President Barack Obama, require each state to establish a health insurance exchange by 2014. Otherwise, the federal government will craft the plans.

“It was a choice whether Colorado should take the bull by the horns, take the lead and establish our own health benefit exchange unique to Colorado and our needs, and not rely on a one-size-fits-all federal program,” said Tony Gagliardi, Colorado director for the National Federation of Independent Businesses, which represents 7,500 small businesses in Colorado and more than 300,000 nationally.

Chambers of commerce and other business organizations throughout the state overwhelmingly supported SB200, but Tea Party activists balked at its link to the changes in federal health care and its bipartisan sponsorship in the Colorado General Assembly.

Critics targeted House Majority Leader Amy Stephens, R-Monument, for carrying the legislation. They labeled the health insurance exchange proposal “Amycare” and nearly compelled her to cave.

Stephens briefly supported an amendment to SB200 that instead of merely creating the exchanges would have directed Hickenlooper to opt out of the federal health care reforms. Ultimately, Stephens stayed the course with SB200 and its original intent.

“I had some concerns. There were some tenuous moments,” said Sen. Betty Boyd, D-Westminster, who teamed with Stephens to carry SB200 in the Senate. “The only ones to testify against it were Tea Party members. Their strategy was to get to my House sponsor and try to rattle her.

“She pulled through it. I think she ultimately saw through it. At that point, we stuck to our agreement. When we kind of signed in blood and said, ‘Yes, we’re going to sponsor this together,’ we agreed that we would not support any amendments that we had not both agreed to, and ultimately that is what happened.’’

Stephens was absent from the bill signing ceremony on Wednesday. She was in Hong Kong tending to one of her parents who has been ill, according to Hickenlooper.

Expanding access to health care while keeping its price reasonable have been the foremost concerns of small businesses and their employees for about two decades, according to Gagliardi.

Those same issues top the list of worries for Colorado’s 750,000 uninsured residents as well, according to Gretchen Hammer, executive director of the Colorado Coalition for the Medically Underserved.

“The exchange, once up and running, will create a more accessible and affordable health insurance marketplace for those Coloradans who work as our ranch hands, child-care providers, hairdressers, home health aides — in places where insurance is not always available in the workplace,”  Hammer said.

The governor and leaders from both parties in the General Assembly are expected to seat a nine-member board by July 1 to begin work establishing the exchange.

Boyd said federal grants are crucial to seamlessly implementing the exchange, and the application deadline for the next round of federal awards is in September.

As one of only seven states that have passed laws authorizing exchanges — and the only state to do it with a Legislature where Democrats and Republicans share control — Colorado is well-positioned to tap into federal grants.

Colorado has until 2013 to establish health insurance exchanges under the law the governor signed Wednesday.

“This is the beginning,” Hickenlooper said. “This is sort of like putting your toe into the water to see how cold it is, and I think we’re going to find out that the water’s not so cold.”