Health exchange remains a politically thorny issue

Gardner under attack for not allowing full vote of committee
The Colorado Statesman

Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, is being blasted by his own Republican colleagues and outside interest groups for moving forward with the state’s health benefit exchange.

The controversy erupted last Thursday when the Legislative Health Benefit Exchange Implementation Review Committee — which Gardner co-chairs with Sen. Betty Boyd, D-Lakewood — approved a $43 million grant application to fund the next step in establishing the state’s online health insurance pool.

Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs

There was no official vote. Instead, the bipartisan 10-member committee’s chairs signed off on the application themselves. A letter was sent to the Colorado Health Benefit Exchange Board with the two chair’s signatures, informing board chairwoman Gretchen Hammer of the action.

The Colorado Doc Squad, a chapter of the Dr. Joseph Warren Institute, which has Republican ties and aims to inform the public on health care policy issues through the eyes of physicians, issued a news release shortly following advancement of the grant application last Thursday. It included the title, “State GOP blows chance to block Colorado health care exchange.”

The statement specifically attacks the committee’s chairs for not allowing a full vote of in order to push the application forward, naming Gardner.

“This was a huge missed opportunity by Republicans,” said Frank Francone, chairman of Colorado Doc Squad. “The Legislative Committee could have stopped the Exchange cold without a single Democrat vote. The Exchange has already burned through $18 million and now needs $43 million more to keep going. Representative Gardner should have called a vote.”

At least one lawmaker on the Health Benefit Exchange Implementation Review Committee agreed that there should have been a full vote to send the application forward. Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, was not shy about expressing his frustrations.

“I made no secret on my thoughts on that. I thought there ought to have been a vote and I was a ‘no’ vote,” Lundberg told The Colorado Statesman.

His issues are with future planning of the exchange, especially surrounding costs. Lundberg does not believe that the exchange board has established a long-term funding plan for when the federal grants run out.

“I likened it to if they were entrepreneurs going to investors saying, ‘We’ve got this great idea, all we need is $100 million and we’re up and running.’ But when you ask how you’re going to pay for ongoing expenses, the answer is, ‘I don’t know.’ That’s not sufficient to say, ‘Go ahead, cash the check.’”

Lundberg also has concerns about enabling Obama’s federal health care law, which he would like to see repealed.

“There were several troubling aspects about it… not to mention the overall point of should we continue to rush down this road to enable this federal law in Colorado fully?” he asked.

The health insurance exchange for Colorado would be designed similar to how airlines sell tickets online, such as through Expedia or Travelocity, creating a consumer marketplace for purchasing health insurance.

The Colorado Health Benefit Exchange Board says $35 million of the grant is necessary to build the software needed to operate the exchange. The board hopes to begin testing the system July 1, 2013 and begin enrollments on Oct. 1, 2013. Insurance policies will become effective on Jan. 1, 2014, according to the current timeline.

The goal of the exchange all along has been to lower prices by utilizing free market economics and individual state needs — an idea that allowed some Republicans to support the provision of so-called “Obamacare.” For that reason, House Majority Leader Amy Stephens, R-Monument, introduced Senate Bill 200 in 2011 with Boyd, which required an outline for implementation of the exchange. Under the act, all funding must come from gifts, grants and donations.

Conservatives attacked Stephens for sponsoring the bill. Some suggested that she was abandoning Republican principles and legitimizing federal health care reform by moving forward with the exchange. SB 200 was given the name “Amycare” by conservatives who grew frustrated with her support of the legislation, a mocking reference to “Obamacare.”

Perhaps trying to avoid the same criticism Stephens received for supporting the exchange in 2011, Gardner quickly defended himself in a prepared statement, pointing out that he continues to oppose Obamacare, but that because the U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld the law’s constitutionality, Colorado must take steps to protect itself from federal interference.

“Moving ahead with the Colorado Health Benefit Exchange — a market-oriented approach that fends off government usurpation of our health care choices — is our only hope of preventing the Obama administration from establishing a federal health benefit exchange of its own design in our state,” said Gardner. “That outcome would pave the way for government-run, socialized health care. It would amount to a worst-case scenario for Colorado’s families and businesses, both small and large.”

The reaction from Democrats was obviously different. Instead of viewing the exchange as a necessary step to stop federal mandates, Boyd said approval of the grant proposal is necessary to continue implementing the federal health care law in Colorado.

“This is a wonderful bipartisan advance for the people of Colorado toward the reality of accessible and affordable health care statewide…” she said. “This will give us the initial resources we need to build the exchange to meet Colorado’s unique needs.”

Hammer agreed that advancing the grant proposal is a positive step for Coloradans.

“That is another major hurdle,” she said.

Peter@coloradostatesman.com