DENVER (AP) — Two state senators whose rural constituents pay some of the nation's highest health insurance rates pleaded Thursday for support for a bill to cut those premiums by having the state help insurers cover their highest-risk clients.
But the reinsurance bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Bob Rankin of Carbondale and Democratic Sen. Kerry Donovan of Vail was drastically changed after supporters determined that an earlier plan to pay for the state fund ignored existing hospital obligations to the state that could cost the state dearly under federal regulations.
The senators offered last-minute amendments that would take reduced fees from hospitals, fees on insurance premiums, and funds destined for housing in another pending bill, to create a two-year reinsurance program starting in 2020. The original bill sought a five-year program.
The hope, the sponsors said, is to launch a program desperately needed in rural Colorado that lawmakers can revisit and find long-term funding.
The Senate Health & Human Services Committee sent the amended bill to the Finance Committee on a 4-1 vote. The panel's three Democrats voted yes, as did GOP Sen. Larry Crowder, who made a point of noting that his southern Colorado district also includes residents struggling to pay their medical bills.
The reinsurance bill faces tough odds with the session scheduled to end May 3. If it passes the Senate it must run through the Democrat-led House to make it to Gov. Jared Polis' desk. The housing bill, too, must be amended and passed.
Reinsurance, successfully adopted in other states, is a top priority for the Democratic governor — and for lawmakers like Rankin.
"Our constituents have been suffering for years," Rankin said. "We know the program is effective. It's always been an issue of how you pay for it."
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The initiative would have the state cover some of the most costly medical bills incurred by patients on Colorado's individual market, or about 250,000 people who buy health coverage directly from insurers.
That would allow private insurers to lower market premiums. Sponsors originally sought an immediate 35% to 40% reduction in individual premiums in rural Colorado and a 15% reduction in Denver.
The revised bill offers a 20% rural reduction and 5% to 10% in other areas, Rankin and Donovan said. Higher reductions will come with a restructured long-term funding mechanism, they said.
If the bill becomes law, the state must request federal approval to implement the program. That's because a substantial part of it would be paid for with federal funds currently used for tax subsidies for patients purchasing insurance under the Affordable Care Act.
Insurance Commissioner Michael Conway testified that individuals who don't get federal subsidies for their insurance could see rates go down as soon as next January. "These people are truly scared," he said of residents forced to choose between high-cost, high-deductible health plans and paying their mortgages or other needs.
Smallwood was skeptical of the last-minute funding proposal and objected to having metropolitan Denver residents sacrifice affordable housing funding for what he termed minimal premium cuts in rural areas.
"My hope is we scrap this," he said, arguing for consideration of a plan that isn't rushed in the session's final days.