By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
A new health cost commission will begin tackling the confounding problem of unsustainable health spending in Colorado by late summer if a bill passes the House and moves to the governor by next week.
Senate Bill 14-187 would establish a bipartisan 12-member commission of experts on health costs and support it with $400,000 to hire staff, seek data from experts and commission studies on why Colorado has some of the highest health costs in the nation. The commission would meet for three years with the aim of recommending proposed legislation like the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.
A diverse group of bipartisan lawmakers is supporting the bill along with business leaders, doctors, consumer advocates and health insurance representatives. The measure has already passed the Senate and is now making its way through the House.
“I don’t think the Affordable Care Act is affordable at all,” said co-sponsor Rep. Amy Stephens, R- Monument, as she presented the bill to colleagues in the House health committee on Tuesday.
Aside from a bill Stephens is sponsoring to stop “revenge porn,” she said reining in health costs is the single most critical issue lawmakers must tackle.
“There is no more important issue on the table than this,” said Stephens, who also joined with Democrats three years ago to help create Colorado’s health exchange even though she opposed the federal Affordable Care Act.
“I gave this serious thought before I waltzed up here to present this today,” Stephens told members of the House Health, Insurance and Environment committee.
She acknowledged that health costs have been rising for years, long before the 2010 passage of federal health reform and “woe to us” if we don’t deal with this today.
“Costs are going up and up and up,” Stephens said. “It’s time to come together and talk about cost drivers.”
Democratic co-sponsor, Rep. Sue Schafer of Wheat Ridge said costs are rising so fast that people are skipping essential care.
“We’ve got the access now (so people can get insurance),” Schafer said. “We really need to get a grip on affordability.”
Representatives from the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry and the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) also supported the measure, which Sen. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, shepherded through the Senate.
Along with wanting to bring down health costs, Aguilar, who is a primary care physician, has been a vocal supporter for a single-payer health system.
Tony Gagliardi, the director for the NFIB in Colorado, said he was hearing some whispers at the Capitol that Aguilar’s cost commission bill was actually at attempt to promote universal health care. He said that was absolutely false and said he decided to testify because health costs are such a challenging issue to his members.
“I’m here today speaking on behalf of over 7,000 small business members in Colorado,” he said. “If I had any feeling that this bill had a pre-determined outcome or would get us closer to a single-payer system, I would not be here supporting it. It’s about time we really started looking at costs.”
Gagliardi said small business owners want to provide health care for their employees, but sometimes pay 30 percent more than large employers for similar or less-comprehensive health coverage.
“We have never, ever talked about what really drives premiums and that’s the actual cost of care,” Gagliardi said. “Let’s have an open, honest conversation.”
Cindy Sovine-Miller, chair of the health care council for the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, echoed Gagliardi’s concerns about costs.
She said many business owners are choosing to drop health coverage and that decision amounts to a double blow for employees.
“Not only do they lose contributions from their employer, but they’ll also be paying the whole amount (for premiums) on a post-tax basis,” Sovine-Miller said.
Along with promoting healthier lifestyles, she said business leaders strongly support a cost commission.
Representatives from the Colorado Medical Society and various health insurance carriers in Colorado also testified in support of the bill.
Shalini Wittstruck of Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield of Colorado said her company is strongly in support of efforts to drive health costs down.
Wittstruck said Anthem analyzed costs in 14 states where it offers health insurance and found some disconcerting results.
“Colorado is one of the most expensive markets in nearly all categories,” she said. “Of course in our line of business, the costs are continuing to increase. We’re all trying to find that magic bullet … to see if we can help Colorado.”
While some lawmakers were hesitant to spend $400,000 on the commission, the measure ultimately passed the health committee by a 9-to-2 vote. Sponsors convinced skeptics that an empowered cost commission could save the state far more than the upfront investment.
Rep. Spencer Swalm, R-Centennial, said he was voting yes reluctantly.
“God bless you,” he said. “I hope it works … and won’t be just another dust magnet on somebody’s book shelf down here.”