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Colorado at center of national debate over health care costs

One of the biggest fights of the Colorado legislature this year is about to start, with the introduction of a highly anticipated bill to create a statewide health insurance option coming as soon as next week.

The bill is a key piece of Colorado Democratic lawmakers’ agenda to tackle rising hospital costs, an issue that state governments and presidential candidates alike have been trying to address. Colorado Republicans are pursuing counterproposals they say would reduce health care costs with less emphasis on hospitals’ portion.

Colorado has become a national battleground in the health care fight, particularly since Gov. Jared Polis and lawmakers began pursuing a state insurance option. A “dark money” campaign has aired more than $800,000 worth of ads and sent mailers to voters criticizing Democrats’ efforts.

Sponsors are confident they have the votes to pass a bill in the Democrat-controlled General Assembly, but they have made significant changes to the initial recommendations in an attempt to garner more support across the aisle. They’re not proposing a pure public option but rather a statewide health insurance option that would be run by private insurance. Rep. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, said the sponsors are also willing to consider amendments as the bill moves through the statehouse.

Americans spend more on health care than people in most developed countries and often for less care, according to a Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study.

The nonpartisan group National Academy for State Health Policy is working with at least 17 states, including Colorado, to address health system and hospital costs through legislation.

“It’s individuals … it’s businesses, it’s every part of the state,” said Colorado Democratic House Speaker KC Becker. “Everyone is feeling the crunch from health care costs that are growing significantly faster than insurance.”

A health access survey published by the Colorado Health Institute in December found that more than 18% of Coloradans struggled to pay medical bills, which the nonprofit said was back up to levels before the Affordable Care Act. More than 30% of Coloradans had received a surprise medical bill in 2019, according to the same survey.

“The number one thing we hear from Coloradans is that we need to do something about health care costs,” said Conor Cahill, Gov. Jared Polis’ spokesman. “People simply cannot afford their care.”

Joshua Ewing, associate vice president of legislative affairs at the Colorado Hospital Association, however, said the lawmakers’ proposals aimed at hospitals “lack vision.” Hospitals, he said, account only for a third of health care spending.

“It ignores a huge portion of the conversation,” Ewing said.