Sebelius lauds state health care progress

By Katy Schultz
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

When employment is scarce, good health care coverage is even scarcer. But in the midst of an economic recession, the state of Colorado has been recognized for its achievements in enrolling financially qualified residents in federally backed health care programs.

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and Gov. Bill Ritter held a teleconference last week announcing that Colorado’s achievements make it a model for nationwide health care reform.

Since Ritter came into office, 67,000 previously uninsured but eligible children have been insured through enrollment in Colorado CHP+, marking a 27 percent increase. Sebelius, the former governor of Kansas, said other states should look to Colorado for “best practices.”

The governor’s office said as many as 100,000 Coloradans will become insured with the implementation of House Bill 1293, the Colorado Health Care Affordability Act, which passed in April.

That still leaves an estimated 800,000 Coloradans without insurance, 180,000 of whom are children. Nevertheless, Colorado’s progress was hailed as a significant step in the right direction.

“We know that when times get tough and working people lose their jobs and their health insurance, they rely on safety net services even more, and we have to be there for them,“ said the governor in a written statement to The Colorado Statesman.

The Colorado Health Care Affordability Act, which is similar to legislation passed in 22 other states, imposes new fees on hospitals that will go into a fund designed to enroll more uninsured Colorado children in Medicaid. Using the success in Colorado and the other states as a model, the federal government intends to expand the program on a national level with $40 million in grants.

Colorado is in line to receive a portion of that money.

“We’re dealing with this problem in tough economic times,” said Steven Summer, president and CEO of the Colorado Hospital Association. “States are taking people off Medicaid, and policy makers in Colorado realize that’s the wrong decision.”

During the conference call, Ritter and Sebelius said that all eyes are looking to Colorado as a model for nationwide health care reform.

“The grants come at a very important time,” said Sebelius. “Unemployment in this country has now reached 9.5 percent. And when parents lose their jobs, they often lose coverage for themselves and their children, so covering America’s children has never been more important.”

The grants will eventually swell to $100 million for outreach campaigns aimed at reducing the number of low-income uninsured children.

Cindy Mann, the director who will oversee the grants, said states have been effective in enrolling more than 30 million children in Medicaid and more than 7 million children in health programs.

“But there are still millions of uninsured, low-income children who are not enrolled in these programs even though they are eligible,” Mann said.

Although Colorado’s implementation of hospital fees is not groundbreaking, Ritter and the Legislature are being praised on a national stage.

“With every passing state, this provider fee provides lessons for the next state to consider,” said Maureen Tarrant, president and CEO of Sky Ridge Medical Center. “We were the beneficiary of the real experiences of the states that passed this. We were able to move forward with the best possible ideas.

“I think that we were able to communicate to decision makers that this was a win on multiple levels,” said Tarrant.

According to Tarrant, Statehouse approval of HB 1293 required a collaborative effort among legislators and the private sector.

Tarrant called the partisan nature of Statehouse politics “a disappointment.”

“It wasn’t the level of listening we wish we would’ve seen,” she said.

At the third Senate hearing for HB 1293, most Republican lawmakers opposed the Colorado Health Care Affordability.

“The role of government is to make health care affordable,” said Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, who voted against the bill. “We should pass legislation that gets government out of the way, clears the red tape and allows the free market to create affordable health care insurance.”

Harvey argued that Colorado Democrats have slanted the issue of health care by confusing a “health care system” with a “health insurance system.”

“I don’t believe our health care system is broken. We have a problem with the health insurance situation,” said Harvey. “Health insurance is becoming too expensive and out of reach for a portion of our population. No other country in the world has been able to have the medical advances we have. No socialist health care system has been able to develop the type of lifesaving technologies we have.”

Whether the problem is with our health care system or our health care insurance system, it’s being felt by individuals and is being addressed at local, state and national levels.

“I think that this is one of the most exciting times that we have seen in terms of public involvement with health care policy,” said Tarrant. “I hope it becomes a kitchen table topic. I hope in the next couple of months we have an enormous amount of transparency of what health care should look like.”

Although they disagree on specfics, Summer, Tarrant and Harvey all understand that the issue of American health care cannot be solved at the state level.

Instead, eyes must be focused toward Washington.

“We need to see what gets passed in D.C. this year and see where the gaps are,” said Tarrant.

Katy@coloradostatesman.com