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Our View: Health care bill steps in the right direction

Public option

Coloradans – and especially rural Southwest Coloradans – are in trouble when it comes to health care costs. Prior to the pandemic, some 11.2% of people in Southwest Colorado couldn’t afford medical insurance, compared to 6.5% for the entire state. Since workers who lost their jobs in 2020 likely also lost insurance, that 11.2% is certainly higher now.

According to the Colorado Health Access Survey, even those with medical insurance in Colorado report skipping doctor visits when ill, struggling to pay medical bills and being unable to pay for rent, utilities, food and other necessities at times because of medical bills.

For those without medical insurance, the troubles are more dire, especially for Black, Indigenous and other people of color. Almost 90% said the reason they don’t have insurance is is they can’t afford it.

Ten of Colorado’s 64 counties have only one health insurer, and without competition, prices are high – often too high for individuals or small businesses to pay. The state’s health care industry – insurers, hospitals and other providers – have said they’d like to help.

But little has changed. And prices just keep going up.

Some of our state legislators are challenging the health care industry to live up to their own words through a bill that asks them to reduce costs.

House Bill 21-1232 would ask insurance companies to lower costs to consumers 10% in 2023 and another 10% in 2024. An actuarial analysis will be conducted to determine if they have achieved those goals.

If they rise to the challenge, great. If not, the state will form a nonprofit Colorado Option commission that will offer a public option health care insurance plan with cheaper premiums and standardized medical services.

Small businesses across the state support the bill, according to Lindsey Vigoda, director of Small Business Majority, some because they can’t afford to offer decent (if any) health insurance to their employees. Other owners say they can’t attract top-notch workers because they can’t offer benefits competitive with those of larger companies. The Colorado Option might make that a little easier.

Since November 2020, Southwest Health Alliance, run by Local First in Durango, has been offering a low-cost insurance plan in La Plata, Montezuma, Dolores and San Juan counties. Local First reports some small businesses have achieved significant savings. Yet that plan doesn’t obviate the need for a broader solution to high health care costs.

HB 1232 is sponsored by Rep. Dylan Roberts and Rep. Iman Jodeh in the House and Sen. Kerry Donovan in the Senate, all Democrats. Leaders of a number of health care organizations have helped craft the bill.

Costs to implement and maintain the bill’s public option would be paid for with federal funds and customers’ premiums, not with taxes, sponsors said.

Opponents include hospitals and some physicians who say it will harm their ability to serve their patients and could lead to fewer, not more, health care choices.

Durango’s state legislators split on the bill: Democratic Rep. Barbara MacLachlan supports it; Republican Sen. Don Coram opposes it.

Some aspects of the U.S. health care industry work very well, as evidenced during the pandemic. But that doesn’t change what we know to be true: We have to find solutions that make health care more accessible and affordable for all Coloradans.

HB 1232 likely is not perfect, but it’s a big step in the right direction – and a signal to the health care industry that the time has come for change.