Perhaps hoping to cash in on some good vibrations, state Sen. Irene Aguilar is planning to submit her bill seeking a referendum to create a universal health care system for Colorado on Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14.
“That’s our target, and it is looking good,” said Aguilar, D-Denver. “We thought it was a day that people would remember. A love present to the people of Colorado.”
However, not everyone in the legislature is in love with the idea, including the ranking Republican on the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, Kevin Lundberg of Berthoud, who has already indicated his distaste for the measure. A referendum that would put the issue before Colorado voters also requires the support of two-thirds of both houses, so Aguilar would need to convince at least four Republicans in the Senate to vote for the bill.
“I think it’s going to be a big challenge,” said Loren Furman, senior vice president for state and federal relations at the Colorado Association for Commerce and Industry (CACI). “I know she [Aguilar] feels strongly about this. … (But) there just seems to be a lack of enthusiasm for this bill.”
CACI has not taken a formal position on the measure, as the bill has not yet been introduced, Furman said. However, the industry association has opposed similar measures in the past.
There has been some talk in the legislature that Aguilar would be willing to negotiate a reduced program should her proposal fail to get legislative approval. However, Aguilar , who has been a primary care physician for 23 years, said the time is right to see income and business taxes generated to help insure Colorado residents who are not insured under federal programs such as Medicare or veterans' benefits.
“I’ve been a little disappointed in how partisan it has been,” Aguilar said. “So I do want to make sure that we get everyone to the table, especially business interests.
“I think as a state we’ve always been on the cutting edge, but at the same time pretty fiscally conservative,” Aguilar said of the chances that Colorado voters would endorse the constitutional amendment, if given the chance. “I don’t think you will find disagreement on whether we should provide health care. You will find disagreement on whether we can afford to do it."
Curiously, whether or not undocumented residents would be included in the coverage has yet to be determined, said Lyn Gullette, executive director of Co-operate Colorado, an organization supporting the amendment to the state constitution. The group has funded an economic analysis of a statewide universal health care program that should be released about the same time Aguilar's bill is introduced.
“It does make fiscal sense to include [the undocumented residents],” Gullette said. “If you are a resident of Colorado, you belong to the cooperative and you pay according to what you can afford.”
In 2011, Aguilar got Senate approval for a measure that would have funded the study of such a statewide co-op (S.B. 168), but it was approved too late in the session to be considered by the House. Aguilar said the time has come to present the idea to voters given that federal funds going into Medicaid can now be rolled into qualifying state plans.
“Why do we need to do another study? The point was (in 2011) to get buy-in and create something completely different. But with the reality of the Affordable Care Act, there is a way to do it,” Aguilar said.
“We see that other nations provide health care, so there is a way. We really need to look at what bills do we pay for upfront, instead of later on when it’s more costly.”
Gullette said the measure would create jobs by keeping health care dollars in the state, and the 5 percent overhead allowed for administration of the program would be far less than the 20 percent allowed by law for the overhead and profits of private insurers. She expects that a statewide health care program would be a driver of economic activity in the state.
“Businesses would continue to pay a payroll tax, but for most businesses it would substantially less than what they’ve been paying for private health care,” Gullette said. “I know the numbers will come out that way, because we are taking out the middle man. With the cooperative you can reduce fraud and provide greater transparency and greater accountability.”