Dem freshman Senators wish they could reform health care

By Jason Kosena
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Being a freshman isn’t easy.

It takes a while to learn to handle the constant pressure from lobbyists, constituents and elder party members and to master the myriad of rules and procedures at the Capitol.

But that doesn’t mean freshmen can’t get important legislation passed.

Hoping to tout their records as first-termers, the freshman class of the Democratic caucus met with reporters on the Senate floor Monday afternoon to reflect on their first session in the upper chamber.

In all, there are six freshman Democratic senators: Morgan Carroll, of Aurora; Joyce Foster, of Denver;
Rollie Heath, of Boulder; Evie Hudak, of Westminster; Mary Hodge, of Brighton; and Linda Newell, of Littleton.

Each member’s choice of topic reflected his or her specific interests. Carroll talked up the Renewable Energy Finance Act, while former Denver City Councilwoman Foster discussed the value of local government in state politics. Heath and Hudak trumpeted education reform. Hodge discussed changes in water laws, and Newell discussed efforts to revamp the child welfare system.

Passion for each chosen area of interest came through, but the deepest feeling focused on one topic: health care.

Although Democrats hold the governor’s office and the majority in both houses of the Legislature, their efforts to pass meaningful health care reform have been futile.

There have been a few changes here and there over the years, including a new hospital provider fee bill in 2009 that adds additional revenue to the state’s health care programs, but, for the most part, Democrats say health care is just as broken today as it was in 2006.

The failure to fix it hasn’t been for lack of effort.

In the graveyard this year is one bill that would have punished health insurance companies that deny claims and one that would make it bad faith for insurance companies to pay bonuses to employees who cancel claims or repeal policies. Also killed this year under the watchful eye of the Democratic majority was pharmaceutical drug reform and a bill to take gender discrimination out of the individual health care market.

Foster promoted a bill to establish a single-payer insurance system for some residents. It never even got to the floor for a vote.

“It was the basis of where we need to be for our people,” Foster said of the bill. “We are talking about the people who are unemployed and people who are becoming unemployed. They are the ones who would benefit by it.”

Foster said it was frustrating for her to lose the bill so early in the process because she knows it would have made a difference in the lives of many Coloradans who are struggling to pay their bills in this difficult economy.

“All the health insurance companies, it seems their goal is to deny benefits because they are trying to make a profit,” Foster said. “We really need to make a systematic change to health care affordability and delivery and making sure that (we) have a private way to choose who our provider is, and then a public piece to (help) pay for it (based on) how much income we make.”

Sure, to most Democrats that sounds like good policy. But the struggle is found in the details and in the intense lobbying pull the private health care industry has at the Capitol.

Carroll, a legislative veteran who served in the House before making the move to the Senate, knows all too well the power of the special interests that swoop in whenever health care reform is mentioned.

“When you are dealing with for-profit interests — whether it’s this year, last year, an election year or whenever — it is tough because they are well-represented,” Carroll said. “There are profound changes that are needed to the private, for-profit health care sector, and I think it has to be a priority next year — whether it’s an election year or not.”

Easier said than done.

Since coming into office in 2006, Ritter and an empowered Democratic Party have been promising to change the health care system. And, even though there have been some shifts in policy along the way and some expansion of benefits for the impoverished and uninsured, any significant reform has failed to materialize.

Carroll said she hopes more can be done next year, even though 2010 is an important election year, because the Legislature will have more time to get prepared for the fight.

“Coming into this year, it was hard because there were a lot of new people in the Legislature, and we didn’t have the prep time that I think is needed,” Carroll said. “I think next year we are going to have a longer lead time and more can go into getting the studies and the stats and the information that we need. If we can do some of that outside of the noise of the session before our 1,200 lobby corps starts to engage, I think it could prove beneficial.”

Maybe. But it’s not like the state hasn’t studied health care reform in the past.

The Blue Ribbon Commission for Health Care Reform was created in 2006 to study and establish health care reform models for expanding coverage, especially for the underinsured and uninsured, and to decrease health care costs for Colorado residents. The commission, composed of a broad array of stakeholders and medical professionals, presented a list of 32 recommendations to the General Assembly in 2008 that was viewed at the time as the best-researched look at health care reform in Colorado history.

It’s doubtful Democratic lawmakers will be able to re-create that effort in the next couple of months in order to bring new policy ideas forward next year, but there is hope among the caucus members.

Foster, who pushed the failed single-payer bill, said that although she wasn’t part of the 208 commission, she believed it lacked one important stakeholder group: ordinary citizens and voters.

“This summer, I intend to bring all kinds of stakeholders together to talk about this,” Foster said, adding that she believes the state is ready for reform.

“Businesses are bleeding, and they can’t afford to pay health care insurance,” she continued. “They want help, but they don’t know what that help looks like yet. But if they are at the table really resolving this, then the fear and the pressure will be reduced. But it can’t be driven by the people who need the care only.”

Other Democrats, including Heath, say the state is limited in what can be done to fix the health care woes until the federal government acts.

“I am hoping that we will get some help with health care from Washington, D.C.,” Heath said. “I am hoping that (legislation) will be something that we can grab onto and expand here. I think it will be very hard for us to do something here by ourselves.”

Although some experts say the Obama administration has health care at the top of its to-do list, the reality is that the type of plan Obama is eyeing would cost tens of billions of dollars. And after spending so much borrowed money on the latest economic stimulus package, and with the economy in trouble, other experts say true health care reform at the federal level is not realistic.

But that doesn’t discourage this year’s freshman.

“I’m hopeful we can get something meaningful done next year and beyond,” said Carroll. “I don’t think we, as a state, can afford not to.”

Jason@coloradostatesman.com