Aguilar to introduce bill to reverse high health costs

By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon

As anger about high health costs escalates in Colorado, Sen. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, plans to introduce legislation this month to create a commission charged with cutting costs.

The problem of high health costs is hardly new. Aguilar, who is also a physician, has a binder full of reports going back 20 years from groups that have tried to tackle the problem both in Colorado and the U.S.

Sen. Irene Aguilar is a primary care doctor who used to practice at Denver Health.

Sen. Irene Aguilar is a primary care doctor who used to practice at Denver Health.

What may be changing now is that under the Affordable Care Act and through Colorado’s All Payer Claims Database, consumers can see variations in health costs and those who are paying significantly higher rates are furious.

“Nobody is winning,” said Aguilar. “We want to figure this out in a Colorado-specific way.”

Aguilar has been working with dozens of consumer advocates and health care lobbyists on the bill to create the Colorado Commission on Affordable Health Care. Aguilar is a proponent for universal care, and in the past, has tried unsuccessfully to push legislation that would give Coloradans a single-payer option. She believes universal coverage would save 20 percent of costs right off the top.

But this time, she’s working closely with former adversaries including health insurance lobbyists to create the commission. The group would begin work by late summer and continue through 2017.

Aguilar’s model is the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. Just like health care costs, prison costs have soared dramatically. Lawmakers created the criminal justice commission in 2007. A diverse group of prosecutors, defense attorneys, inmate activists and policy experts has studied solutions to a variety of criminal justice dilemmas and worked together to support 39 pieces of legislation between 2009 and 2013.

As more Coloradans have gotten health coverage since Oct. 1, when the state exchange launched, complaints about costs have been rampant. Garfield County is planning to file a discrimination suit by the end of this month against the state unless people there get immediate relief from high insurance costs.

About 250,000 Coloradans last fall received cancellation notices after their health insurance plans no longer complied with minimum requirements under the Affordable Care Act. Many were able to renew less expensive plans, but some had to buy more comprehensive insurance that cost more. Then people in Colorado ski resort areas found that they were paying the highest insurance prices in the country. Many people in the most expensive parts of Colorado earn too much to qualify for subsidies that are supposed to make health care more affordable. As of the end of February, about 56 percent of nearly 85,000 people who bought private health insurance through Colorado’s exchange qualified for subsidies to lower the costs, but 46 percent did not.

To help tackle high health costs, Colorado Insurance Commissioner Marguerite Salazar has created a health cost study group that is meeting and hopes to have recommendations by May.

Aguilar hopes that her commission could take findings from Salazar’s group and keep dissecting and resolving the problem.

Aguilar knows that health costs are controversial.

“Whenever you try to do something dramatic in health care, there are so many people that have their fingers in the pie, that is seems somebody always squashes it,” she said.

Her idea is to bring everyone to the table and have working groups that would bring the best ideas to commissioners who would then vote on and implement ideas that could work.

“This is a pretty concrete vision. I’ve got diverse buy-in,” she said.

Aguilar’s been working with Democrats and Republicans, health insurance carriers, doctors, hospitals and consumers.

“This is a topic on everybody’s brain,” Aguilar said. “I’m not getting a lot of push-back.”

Instead, she’s finding advocates of all stripes are impatient for action.

“They want to make sure the people at the table can actually make something happen.”

Aguilar expects a final draft of her bill by next week and hopes to introduce it early the following week.

“I really hope we will get a clearer understanding of all the forces are that are making health care unaffordable. What is driving up the costs and what can we agree to get rid of?” Aguilar said.

“We don’t have the money to cover everybody for everything,” she said. “How do we do this (cuts costs) in a way that involves prevention. What is the best way of saving money?”

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