Colorado rural health care bill receives House approval, faces obstacle in Senate
April 23, 2017
A proposed law to provide Coloradans financial assistance on health care costs moved through the state House last week, but now faces a stiff challenge in the Senate.
House Bill 17-1235, which would aid rural communities that often pay more than twice as much for insurance as their metro area counterparts, passed the House this past Monday by a vote of 42-22. If eventually signed into law, it will temporarily expand who is eligible for a subsidy to help offset the price of inflated premiums, and establish a fund to draw from for those who qualify.
Presently individuals making roughly $47,000, and $97,000 for families of four, can receive assistance making monthly payments. The "Financial Relief Defray Individual Health Plan Cost" bill would increase that limit to about $59,000 and $121,000, respectively, for those considered cost-burdened and sinking more than 15 percent of their annual income into a health care plan purchased through the state exchange.
"This bill won't solve all the problems in the universe or with the health care system," said Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, the bill's primary sponsor, "but it's a stop-gap, emergency measure until we can come with more long-term or structural reform."
The Democrat-dominated House pushed the plan through with the backing of five Republicans. The conservative party owns a one-vote majority in the Senate, however, and the bill was directed to the branch's State Affairs Committee rather than its health-related equivalent. The tactic may signal its potential demise, despite being sponsored in the Senate by two Republicans, Sens. Don Coram, of Montrose, and Larry Crowder, of Alamosa.
If the bill gets to the Senate floor, Mitsch Bush, D-Eagle/Routt, said she is confident it will pass. But that's a big if.
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The bill first needs a simple majority in committee. The five-member state affairs panel includes three Republicans — none of who has voiced support of the bill thus far — and two Democrats. The Health and Human Services Committee has the same makeup, but Crowder sits among that group. Mitsch Bush believes having the bill assigned to the State Affairs Committee, which normally handles items concerning elections, campaign finance, as well as military and veterans' matters, may be an attempt to have it killed.
"It is disappointing," she said. "That's where they send bills to die when leadership wants them dead. We'll just see how it goes, and it's not over till it's over."
The bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Summit/Pitkin, would create a one-month special enrollment period for the newly benefit-eligible to sign up for a health plan. And the financial subsidy would extend through the 2018 open enrollment required under the Affordable Care Act, then expiring at the end of that insurance year.
The strategy is part of the growing battle in the state between urban and rural areas due to the considerable disparity that separates them over health care fees. Colorado's current framework breaks the state up into nine geographic regions with vastly different costs depending on where you live. The Western Slope and Eastern Plains are the two most expensive, while Denver and Boulder are two of the cheapest.
"This is a bill for rural Colorado," said Mitsch Bush. "We have a crisis for those who are cost-burdened, having to make a decision between paying their rent or their health insurance. That's not the type of choice people should have to be making."
"This is a critical emergency and we have a responsibility to respond and help these Coloradans," added Hamner.
In the long run, the goal of many lawmakers from these smaller communities is to pass legislation that will permanently share the costs of possessing health insurance throughout the state. Maintaining the desires of constituents, though — particularly as health care prices continue to rise nationwide and everyone is feeling more of a squeeze — Front Range legislators oppose shouldering any increases of help to places like the Western Slope.
Creative measures to offer at least some relief have therefore been the focus of those who represent mountain town and farming communities. HB 17-1235 is one example, but, starting with Tuesday's Senate committee vote, it will take an appetite and willingness to lend assistance in the form of funds among the higher-density cities to get that effort off the ground.