By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
Congressman Cory Gardner today blasted Colorado’s exchange board for giving its CEO a $14,000 bonus for 2013 along with a 2.5 percent raise for this year.
The raise brings CEO Patty Fontneau’s salary to about $195,300 and makes her the third most highly-paid state health exchange manager in the country. (Click here to read Despite fury last fall, exchange board gives CEO raise, $14,000 bonus.)
Gardner, a Republican from Yuma who is now running for the U.S. Senate, had been critical of Connect for Health Colorado CEO Patty Fontneau for requesting a raise last fall when the exchange had gotten off to a lackluster start.
Gardner renewed his criticism on Monday and was especially angry that exchange managers are considering paying their bills by imposing $13 million in fees on all Coloradans who buy health insurance — even those who don’t get it through the exchange.
“It is absolutely unacceptable that Connect for Health is proposing huge user fees to Coloradans who are already paying too much under the President’s health care law, while handing out cash to their executives,” Gardner said in a written response after learning of the bonus and pay hike.
“I introduced legislation last December that would prevent this from happening. Federal grant funds, designated for establishing state-run exchanges, should not be doled out to state exchange chief executives. Connect for Health Colorado simply isn’t working with the best interest of Colorado in mind.”
U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Eldorado Springs, and Gardner’s opponent in the race for U.S. Senate, was unavailable for comment Monday afternoon.
Board member Ellen Daehnick, a Wheat Ridge business owner who is registered unaffiliated, but said she’s been a lifelong supporter of Democrats, was the lone board member to vote against the bonus and pay hike. Daehnick is a member of the finance committee, which earlier this year rejected Fontneau’s proposals to hike user fees from 1.4 percent to 1.7 percent.
“We’ve just spent several finance committee and board sessions, not to mention time answering legislators’ and Congress members’ questions, on how Connect for Health Colorado will pay its bills,” Daehnick said in a written statement after Monday’s board meeting. “The Executive Director has already requested one fee increase on Coloradans next year, and the board may be asked to consider another in a few weeks. Given this situation, Connect for Health Colorado’s leadership should set an example by forgoing pay raises and bonuses until the financial plan is resolved.”
Dr. Mike Fallon, a Republican and fellow member of the exchange’s finance committee, supported the pay hike even though he prides himself on being a fiscal conservative and predicted other Republicans will be angry.
“They’re not going to like it,” Fallon said. “But I’m a small businessman and you reward your staff for jobs well done.
“I am willing to bite the bullet and cringe a little to pay for (these) services. That’s a good business decision,” Fallon said.
Compared to other state exchanges that have flopped, Fallon said Colorado is doing relatively well.
“When you look at the hundreds of millions of dollars being thrown away on exchanges that have failed…what we’re spending on this is a very reasonable investment,” Fallon said.
But Fallon was right that other Republicans would be angry.
“I’m a little shocked to be honest,” said Rep. Dan Nordberg, R-Colorado Springs, who sits on the Colorado legislature’s audit committee and this year sponsored legislation that would have required a comprehensive audit of the health exchange.
“(That bill) was killed after Patty Fontneau and members of Connect for Health lobbied heavily against it in the Senate,” Nordberg said.
He said Monday’s vote to give Fontneau a bonus and pay hike “sends the wrong message.”
“I can’t tell the taxpayers of Colorado whether the exchange is sustainable. Yet the board for the exchange deemed it appropriate to give Fontneau a substantial pay increase? That doesn’t smell right to me,” he said.
Fontneau said during Monday’s meeting that Connect for Health is on firm financial footing.
Nordberg wants proof.
“Talk is cheap,” he said. “Until we see the books (we don’t know).”
He said he plans to reintroduce legislation seeking a comprehensive exchange audit in 2015 and will keep doing so until the measure passes.
Said Nordberg: “If she (Fontneau) feels like she deserves a pay increase, she needs to justify it to the legislature as well as to the people of Colorado.”