'Extremely Unnecessarily Expensive:' Future Of Colorado's Health Care Exchange Under Discussion

Feb 8, 2017

In the midst of an ongoing national fight about the future of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, a measure to replace Colorado's health care exchange is igniting passion in Denver. On Feb. 7, people rallied outside the state capitol to protest repealing the Affordable Care Act, while in the capitol, the Senate Finance Committee held a hearing on Senate Bill 3, known as the 'Repeal Colorado Health Benefit Exchange Bill.'

Progressive group Save My Care is organizing a cross-country bus tour, and says that more than a half million people in Colorado would lose healthcare coverage if the Affordable Care Act is repealed.

"Connect for Health, in my opinion, is extremely unnecessarily expensive to the taxpayer." -- Sen. Jim Smallwood [R-Parker]

Kathy Henson attended the rally. She's from Thornton and said her husband is a custom home builder. Before the Affordable Care Act—and Colorado's exchange, Connect for Health—she says they paid $1,000 monthly in premiums for their a high deductible plan.

"We felt always on the fringe, and always on the verge of losing our health care," said Henson. "And we are no longer spending more than our mortgage on our healthcare for the first time."

The sponsor of SB 3, freshman Sen. Jim Smallwood [R-Parker] said his measure is not an indictment of Obamacare, saying that he even supports some parts of the federal law. For Colorado, he says the state exchange's inability to stay afloat financially without tax credits and grants as a reason to discuss repeal.

"Connect for Health, in my opinion, is extremely unnecessarily expensive to the taxpayer," Smallwood said. "Connect for Health has not proven to be successful per the intent of the original act, which was to increase access, affordability and choice for individuals and small employers purchasing health insurance."

One of the options on the table is following in the footsteps of states like Oregon, Kentucky and Nevada, which have switched from a state-run solution to the national marketplace, healthcare.gov.

"We commissioned a study that our board did review.  We had estimated those costs being in the $23 million range," to switch to the federal exchange, said Kevin Patterson, the CEO of Connect for Health Colorado.

According to Patterson, that's roughly equal to the cost for other states. Opponents argue the cost would negate any potential savings by repealing the exchange. But Republican Sen. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs notes that the non-partisan fiscal analysis puts the cost of switching to a much lower $4 million.

Julie Simons of Broomfield and Kathy Henson of Thornton attended a rally at the state capitol on Tuesday in support of the Affordable Care Act. Both said the law has helped them get more affordable coverage.

"You're telling me $23 million and they're telling just over $4 million," he said. "How is there $23 million in costs in buying from healthcare.gov instead of Colorado's current website?"

"Senator Hill, welcome to my world," said Patterson. "When you're dealing with the federal government and trying to do something you think might be a simple process, what you are given in terms of the requirements that are built into your system, because it's healthcare information.  I'm just telling you what the costs have been for my colleagues."

Four hours of testimony

The line to attend the Senate Finance Committee's hearing on SB 3 went out the door. After nearly four hours of testimony, mostly from people talking about the benefits of the Affordable Care Act, Smallwood said several times his bill wouldn't change federal law.

"SB 3 does not repeal the ACA, does not repeal the Affordable Care Act, does not end Obamacare, it does not cancel anybody's insurance policies, it does not change anybody's insurance policies, it does not end federal subsidies that help our citizens pay for their insurance policies," said Smallwood. " And it does not in any way rollback Medicaid expansion."

Nancy Hall was one of the many who testified. She said the bill doesn't address baseline issues that have led to the exchange's problems.

"I think health insurance has gotten exceedingly expensive," she said. "It's not affordable. There are a lot of problems with the system. However, my problem with this bill is it does not address any of those problems."

Nationally, President Donald Trump and some Republican lawmakers have pushed their repeal and replace of Obamacare to the "end of the year." But the potential for change is leaving state lawmakers concerned that repealing Connect for Health could end up wasting time and money.

"Why would we waste all those tax dollars to undo, find out that we're changing everything at the federal level and then have to redo?" said Democratic Sen. Lois Court of Denver.

Republican Sen. Jack Tate of Centennial said now is precisely the right time.

"I'm a big believer in using committees to stir out ideas," said Tate. "I'm glad we're talking about it now rather than next year."  

Capitol Coverage is a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Fifteen public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.