Colorado legislature moves closer to creating public health insurance option

Colorado lawmakers on Tuesday took a crucial step closer toward getting into the health insurance business.

The state Senate gave preliminary approval to a bill that orders the state’s division of insurance to create a public insurance option if such a program can be proven viable and the state can earn a waiver from the federal government.

The bill’s aim is to create competition and drive down costs. Many rural Coloradans face the highest premiums in the nation and often have only one insurance option. Coloradans who buy insurance on the individual market have experienced double-digit increases in premiums for multiple years. This year, premiums increased at the smallest rate, an average 5.6 percent, since 2015.

“It’s not getting better until we do something to get it better,” state Sen. Lois Court, a Denver Democrat, told reporters earlier Tuesday while discussing her caucus’s multi-pronged effort to drive down health care costs.

A number of other health insurance bills are making their way through the Colorado General Assembly. Already, Gov. Jared Polis has signed a bill that requires hospitals to better report their costs and revenue. Proposals that would allow Coloradans to import drugs from Canada and the creation of a state fund to help insurers cover their sickest and most expensive patients are likely to reach Polis’s desk by the end of the session.

Several of the Democrats’ efforts hinge on federal approval, something that is not guaranteed given the partisan divide between Colorado’s shift toward the left and the conservative Trump administration — despite bipartisan support to rein in health care costs.

“We’re not acting in a vacuum,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat. “We need to understand what other states are doing and how similar their requests our to us. And if the president and his folks are interested in giving a waiver to one state, what can we do to position ourselves to get something similar.”

The public option bill earned bipartisan support from the state House. However, Senate Republicans were not won over so easily.

State Sen. Jim Smallwood, a Parker Republican, warned his peers during Tuesday’s floor debate that the bill could drive out private options not improve them.

“My fear is that if something like this is enacted and we go down this path under the guise of creating more competition, it’s going to come back irreversibly to harm constituents in the districts we’re trying to help,” he said.

Donovan dismissed Smallwood’s arguments as “monsters and ghosts.”

Colorado’s proposal is one of several being debated by states across the nation. However, no other state has a public option, meaning Colorado could be one of the first in the nation to do so. If the bill becomes law, the legislature will have next year to tweak the system before the option is available to public.

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