Gov. Hickenlooper signs health-care bill into law in Frisco

Kevin Fixler
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper was in Frisco on Tuesday afternoon to sign into law a bill that triggers a study of the high cost of health care in resort areas such as Garfield County.
Ben Trollinger / Summit Daily |

And now it’s officially in the books.

Health-care bill HB 16-1336, which has been progressing through the Colorado General Assembly this legislative session, is a law after Gov. John Hickenlooper made a stopover in Frisco at Elevate coSpace on Tuesday afternoon to add his signature. The new decree calls for the state’s Division of Insurance to conduct a study looking at the viability of creating a single rating area from which health-insurance companies develop individual plan costs. The report is due in August.

“It’s a first step to look at what it would mean if we had one district in terms of how we price health care, and that district would be the size of Colorado,” said Hickenlooper. “Insurance companies aren’t crazy about it, but I think there are ways to get around that, and they should be safe either way.”

As part of the passage and implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), states had to adopt the federal program for a health exchange where individuals buy care or institute their own. Colorado chose the latter, and presently there are nine geographic regions in the state, with the mountain communities of the Western Slope paying not just the highest premiums among them, but in the entire nation.

With the assistance of Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs — who received praise from several of the bill’s sponsors during Tuesday’s signing party — Reps. Millie Hamner (D-Dillon), who was on hand, and Bob Rankin (R-Carbondale) introduced the bill on the House floor, where it passed on April 1 by a vote of 54-11. Sens. Kerry Donovan (D-Vail), also in attendance in Frisco on Tuesday, and Ellen Roberts (R-Durango) then carried it to the state Senate, where it passed 25-9 on April 20.

“It’s a pretty special day when the governor of Colorado chooses Frisco for a bill signing,” Hamner told a standing-room only crowd on Tuesday. “It’s kind of a big deal. We heard testimony from people who … tell us their stories about how unfair it is that people who live in Denver pay half as much as we have to pay for the same coverage here in our mountain communities. That’s just not fair.”

Critics to the legislation, which, once more, is only a study, say it has an underlying motive. That is, though, of eventually creating one insurance premium rate across the state for individual plans, which means those paying lower costs in the Front Range or elsewhere will have to pony up more money each month to offset the increased mountain and rural prices.

“My sense is that the larger urban districts — there’s certainly more people there — that increase in cost would be very, very small, literally a dollar or two,” said Hickenlooper. “That’s sort of the way democracy is supposed to work: Out of many, comes one.”

Gibbs, who sheepishly received acclaim for his work on the bill during the ceremony, demurred and called the bill’s process into law a team effort. He said he was encouraged by the promise of what may ultimately be accomplished from the information fathered in the single rating-area study, especially for the region.

“Health care is such a breaking point for so many families,” he said, “especially if you’re not part of a large- or small-group plan. You’re getting hammered in the mountain communities right now, absolutely hammered. This isn’t going to solve all of the challenges, but this gives us great footing to understand what the possible next steps are. We’re not going to give up.”

In addition to the study, HB 16-1336 will analyze the drivers of cost of these individual health-insurance plans. Specifically, it will probe how prescription drug costs, diagnostic tests, surgeries, doctors’ pricing and other hospital procedures add to those total costs.

Proponents of the bill have noted that even if the results of the study come back and a single rating are is not practical, then at least they have the data to pursue other ways to reduce costs across the state, as well as in the mountain region.

“With that data,” said Gibbs, “we’re going to then examine what the next steps will be, whether it’s legislative or administrative. And it’s not going to be a two-year study; we’re going to get it in the next couple months. We’re not turning anything upside down with this bill necessarily, but it’s giving us that data to start. This has laid the groundwork for future problem solving on this topic.”

Plenty of celebratory smiles and hugs were exchanged among the participants on Tuesday in Frisco. Even if the study’s outcome remains unclear at this point, with the governor making a rare appearance to the area to shake hands, pose for photos and put the finishing touches on moving the bill into law, the atmosphere was filled with optimism for what it might mean long term for bringing down health-care costs in the region.

“This bill has had widespread interest and concern across the counties, not just Summit County,” said Hamner. “It’s really raising awareness about the importance of this issue, putting in place a policy that gives us a study of the feasibility of having one geographic-rating system for the entire state. We think that’d be much more fair.

“We don’t know if it’s going to be feasible,” she added. “The report will be ready and presented to me, as a member of the Joint Budget Committee, on Aug. 1. So it’s quick, and, hopefully, we’ll see what happens from there.”

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