Senator Jim Smallwood takes a stand against Colorado single-payer health care

Colorado Democrats introduce public option health care as they take control of General Assembly

The first five bills introduced in each chamber largely relate to health care and education costs.

By ANNA STAVER | astaver@denverpost.com and NIC GARCIA | ngarcia@denverpost.com | The Denver Post

PUBLISHED: January 4, 2019 at 7:43 pm | UPDATED: January 4, 2019 at 8:27 pm

Creation of a public option health care plan is one of the most ambitious changes Colorado Democrats proposed Friday as they kicked off a new session of the General Assembly in control of both chambers for the first time in four years.

The first five bills introduced in each chamber — indicators of lawmakers’ top priorities for the year — largely relate to health care and education costs.

A Senate bill would create a public option health insurance plan that Coloradans who live in the highest-cost areas — mainly the Western Slope — could buy instead of their current insurance starting in the fall of 2019. A House bill would expand that program to the entire state by the fall of 2020.

“You’d be buying a plan that’s at Medicare reimbursement rates,” said Rep. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, who is sponsoring both bills. “It could potentially be administered through a nonprofit like Kaiser, but it’s not a private company plan.”

Democratic lawmakers have sought to bring change to Colorado’s health care system for years, but the combination of majorities in both the Senate and House and Jared Polis’ election as governor could be a game-changer. Health care reform was a central theme of Polis’ campaign. Senate Democrats say Polis didn’t have input on their bill but was kept updated as it was crafted.

The reason for separate bills is because a statewide public option would require a waiver from the federal government, but the pilot program would not.

“It’s very refreshing to me to see Democrats themselves finally admitting publicly that Obamacare is failing them,” said Sen. Jim Smallwood, R-Parker. “If Obamacare was working, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

Smallwood said his main concern with both bills is that allowing people to buy the same health care plan as state employees without addressing the reasons why medical care costs more on the Western Slope could increase insurance premiums for state employees.

“This bill does absolutely nothing to address the high costs of medical care in those areas,” Smallwood said.

Another Senate bill would let Coloradans import prescription drugs from Canada. It’s an idea supported by Polis, but it has previously been rejected by the Bush and Obama administrations.

The first House bill filed aims to make hospital billing more transparent, and Senate Bill 1 would expand an opioid treatment program in southern Colorado.

Unlike the first health care bills of the 2019 session, most of the education bills unveiled Friday have Republican co-sponsors.

One Senate bill would select 100 teachers annually to receive up to $5,000 a year for five years to help with their school loans. The program would prioritize teachers who want to work in places and teach subjects that are considered to be high need, and it would be open to any teacher rather than just those fresh out of college.

“If these programs are only geared toward new teachers, you are sending your least experienced educators into hard-to-teach areas,” said Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat.

A House bill that would create a pilot program to train more principals and educators who aspire to become principals also got Republican support, but no Republican senator has signed onto a bill that would set rules for companies that service education loans.

Colorado already regulates how car loans and home loans can be serviced, but there are no rules about what student loan servicers need to disclose, said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder. “Coloradans need someone to take ownership of helping people navigate this process.”

He said he’s optimistic the bill could pick up support from a Republican senator in the coming weeks, although it ultimately doesn’t need that if all Democrats get behind it.