Democrats' health care agenda includes ten bills

By Jimy Valenti

Gov. Bill Ritter and legislative Democrats say they can’t wait on Washington for health care reform.

Ritter introduced a package of bills Feb. 11 designed to improve Colorado’s health care system despite a down economy. The ten bills and an executive order range from simplifying insurance forms to providing better care to women, all with minimal cost to the state.

“We can’t wait for Washington to act,” Ritter said during a recent speech to the Colorado Health Foundation, “and we aren’t.”

Ritter said that the cost of providing care to Coloradans continues to increase and that this legislative session will focus on delivering a better value for health care dollars spent in the state.

“We are looking at this issue from all angles to best address the cost, accessibility, and quality of health care in our state,” said Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont. “Let’s get moving on a health care agenda which will keep Colorado’s workers, families, and economy healthy.” ?

Dede de Percin, executive director of the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative, said Ritter’s legislative plan creatively addresses key issues around transparency and accountability in an emaciated fiscal environment.

According to Ritter, perhaps the most fiscally impactful bill is the Medicaid Efficiencies Act. Senate Bill 167, sponsored by Sen. Betty Boyd, D-Lakewood, and Rep. Jim Riesberg, D-Greeley, would increase Medicaid fraud and abuse investigations, as well as increase administrative efficiencies.

The governor said that Colorado has recovered more than $300 million associated with Medicaid fraud. Becoming more aggressive in attacking fraud will help fund health care programs and save money during the state’s $2 billion budget shortfall, he said. The bill also makes it easier for Medicaid patients to see their doctors through administrative efficiencies.

Rep. Cindy Acree, R-Aurora, said the Medicaid bill is the only piece of legislation upon which she and the governor agree. Acree said she has been working on Medicaid reform the last few years.

Acree, however, was highly critical of Ritter’s health care agenda, saying it would not increase Coloradans access’ to care, her primary concern.

“We’re not making sure that people can see doctors if they live in Agate, or if they live down south or if they live on the Western Slope,” said Acree. “We have a lot of places in this state that still have a critical gap in accessing health care.”

Boyd said the package of bills would increase Coloradans’ access to care.

“We will be introducing bills to make our Medicaid system more efficient, ensure that health insurance policies are understandable and standardized, and to help our health care professionals get to the areas where they are needed most,” Boyd said.

Four bills would provide clarity to consumers when interacting with insurance companies.

• House Bill 1166, sponsored by Rep. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, and Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, would eliminate confusing language and jargon making it easier for consumers to understand their polices.

• HB 1242, sponsored by Rep. Dennis Apuan, D-Colorado Springs, and Sen Lois Tochtrop, D- Thornton, would require insurance carriers to use one standard application, where currently consumers must fill out separate, complex forms for each carrier. Legislators say this would also increase competition as consumers can more easily compare prices.

• HB 1004, sponsored by Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, and Sen. Joyce Foster, D-Denver, would help consumers better understand their insurance policy by standardizing policy forms and better explains benefits.

• HB 1332, sponsored by Rep. Joe Miklosi, D-Denver, and Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, would standardize insurance billing codes, thus saving doctors time and money.

Other bills would encourage more nurses to start training, encourage health care professionals to practice in rural areas, set up a database of insurance claims, prohibit health insurance gender discrimination and force insurance plans to cover breast cancer screenings.

• SB 58, sponsored by Sen. Abel Tapia, D-Pueblo, and Rep. Sara Gagliardi, D-Arvada, would improve the CollegeInvest loan forgiveness program by extending who is eligible. This would result in more nurses who could be trained each year.

• HB 1138, sponsored by Rep. Gagliardi and Sen. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, would provide incentives to health care professionals who pass up lucrative metro area jobs for rural ones.

• HB 1330, sponsored by Reps. Kefalas and Daniel Kagan, D-Englewood, and Sen. Morse would establish a claims database that would increase transparency and provide insight into how Colorado is spending health care dollars.

• HB 1008, sponsored by Rep. Sue Schafer, D-Wheat Ridge, and Senators Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, and Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, would ensure women never pay more for health insurance. The bill cites studies showing that women pay 40 percent more for the same coverage as men.

• HB 1252, sponsored by Rep. Dianne Primavera, D-Broomfield, and Senators Schwartz and Boyd, would ensure that every provider covers breast cancer screenings.

Ritter also signed an executive order that requires state departments to electronically share citizenship information, making it easier and faster for low-income Coloradans to enroll in public health programs.

Linda Gorman, health care policy center director for the Independence Institute, said the legislation only added regulations to Colorado’s health care industry.

“The bottom line is that the Governor’s measures increase health care regulation,” said Gorman. “Increasing regulation increases costs. There is nothing in this legislative list that reduces cost for anyone who provides health care.”

Gorman said that many of the bills are unnecessary while others would require the hiring of more state workers to accommodate new measures.

The announcement of the legislation comes after the Colorado Health Foundation released its annual Colorado Health Report Card that gave children’s health in Colorado a D-plus, down from a C-minus a year earlier.

Charles Reyman, vice president of communications for the Colorado Health Foundation said CHF is very supportive of Ritter’s 2010 agenda.

The Colorado Consumer Health Initiative took strong positions for HB 1330, HB 1008, HB 1166 and HB 1004.

“We’re happy with the themes we see here and are glad to see Ritter’s leadership,” said de Percin.