Colorado Senate Republicans hope to eliminate the state’s health insurance exchange as part of a priority agenda this year.
Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Canon City, dropped the proposal during his opening day remarks Wednesday as the legislature began its four-month session.
The news came as a surprise to Democrats, who quickly expressed skepticism, suggesting that it would be premature and risky to eliminate the online marketplace.
“We can’t take 140,000 or 150,000 people and just chuck them down the drain because somebody wants to dismantle something like that,” Senate Democratic Leader Lucia Guzman of Denver said shortly after Grantham’s remarks.
Connect for Health Colorado was established in 2011 with legislation that passed with bipartisan support. Former House Republican Leader Amy Stephens of Monument sponsored the legislation at the time, arguing that the insurance exchange was necessary so that Colorado could chart its own course in the face of the Affordable Care Act.
But over the years, health care costs have spiked along the Western Slope and in other rural parts of the state. Connect for Health has also faced unflattering audits, in which problems with dozens of payments and reimbursements were exposed.
Federal auditors say Colorado should repay nearly $9.7 million for grants used to set up the state’s health care exchange after concluding that the money was misspent or not properly accounted for.
Questions have been raised as to how well the exchange documented payments to contractors and consultants. Bonuses and travel expenses for executives and other employees have also raised eyebrows.
Given concerns raised over the exchange, and facing a potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act under a Republican Donald Trump administration and Republican Congress, Colorado Senate Republicans believe now is the time to advance the conversation.
“It is time for us to shed some of the dead weight of failed government policy,” Grantham said. “This is long overdue.”
The measure will be sponsored by freshman Sen. Jim Smallwood, R-Parker, who has a background in insurance brokerage. He made the Affordable Care Act a priority of his campaign, promising to help people navigate the “largest challenge businesses and families have faced in recent memory: Obamacare.”
Connect for Health officials, however, say the marketplace is empowering Coloradans. Chief Executive Kevin Patterson this week pointed out that more than 158,000 Coloradans selected health care coverage for 2017 on the exchange through last Sunday, a rate 18 percent ahead of signups one year ago.
“We have been pleasantly surprised with the increase in sign-ups during this open enrollment period,” Patterson said in a statement. “Our numbers have gone up in our last two open-enrollment periods. Last year we were up 19 percent over the previous year and this year we are seeing the same kind of strong growth.
“These many thousands of Coloradans have protected their health and their finances with health care coverage.”
Even though the 2011 exchange bill passed with bipartisan support in the House, it did not receive Republican approval in the Senate.
During his remarks, Grantham expressed optimism that he might find a way to work across the aisle with Democrats. But following his speech, he acknowledged it will be an uphill battle.
“I made it very clear that there’s things that will be impossible,” Grantham said. “But we’re going to try.”