The most controversial health care bill in the state legislature passed a big test yesterday. Colorado Public Radio Health Reporter Eric Whitney says the proposal to set up a health insurance “exchange” won important Republican votes. An exchange would re-organize a big part of Colorado’s health insurance marketplace, with the goal of increasing competition and driving prices down.

WHITNEY: The health insurance exchange bill is bi-partisan in the sense that a Democrat is sponsoring it in the Senate, and a Republican in the House. But the bill didn't win many Republican votes as it made its way through the Senate. And Tea Party activists have come out strongly against the bill, saying Republicans who vote for it are doing President Obama's bidding.

So yesterday would have been a great opportunity for Republicans to kill the bill.

SUMMERS: The next block of testimony, which are those signed who've signed up in opposition....

WHITNEY: That's Representative Ken Summers, the Republican chairman of the House Health and Environment committee, where the exchange bill was heard yesterday. Republicans have a majority in the House, which means they run that body's committees, too, and can kill bills quickly if they want to. Yesterday, they didn't want to.

MASSEY: it's a great idea now, I'm glad Representative Stephens was able to craft a good compromise piece such as this, so I'm happy to support this at this point.

WHITNEY: That’s Representative Tom Massey of Poncha Springs, one of three Republicans who voted in favor of the exchange bill, and that was enough to pass it out of committee.
He referred to Representative Stephens, that's Amy Stephens, the House majority leader who's co-sponsoring the bill. When it was first introduced, even her support for it seemed to be wavering in the face of Tea Party criticism. But yesterday, she came out swinging to get the bill passed.

STEPHENS: Are we ready to go? Everyone here? Good. Hey, thanks for coming, I know we have a busy day today...

WHITNEY: it started with a press conference before the committee hearing. Stephens brought business leaders in front of the cameras to talk about why they're supporting the bill.09-143

LINDSAY: I'm here as the chairman of Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce to support this piece of legislation.

WHITNEY: That's Bill Lindsay, a Denver insurance broker.

LINDSAY: we think that this bill is very important because it's a Colorado solution. And we think developing a solution that's unique to Colorado, unique to our small business marketplace, and to individuals and consumers is what is necessary.

WHITNEY: Stephens lined up business group leaders and small business owners to testify before the committee, too. They all said that the health care status quo isn't working, that every year they face higher health care costs and fewer choices of health plans for their employees. The business leaders say they want an exchange, a re-organized marketplace where lots of insurance companies offer lots of choices in a highly competitive environment. The business leaders say they think the exchange bill can set that up, and help drive prices down.
Others, though, see it differently.

LYONS: It's socialism in its classic definition. It's not going to help out state at all.

WHITNEY: Cindy Lyons, a writer and researcher, testified against the exchange bill. She echoed worries that Tea Party activists have brought up since before it was introduced.

LYONS: I think that we are going to set something up, and I think when the federal health care system is put in place, it will overtake the bill.

WHITNEY: The reason some people worry about that is because the federal Affordable Care Act, passed last year, calls on states to create exchanges. It says they're a key part of the reformed health care system the Act sets up.
But Representative Stephens has insisted from the beginning that Colorado can set up an exchange that's independent of the federal law, which she says Colorado should opt out of. And she’s sponsoring a bill to do that.
Stephens says she was careful to craft the exchange bill to prevent a federal takeover.

STEPHENS: at any point in time any of us in this room, as a legislator, could run a bill to repeal, reverse or do  whatever. But I think, given our situation, what's right for Colorado, what's right from a state's rights perspective, what is right for the many business people we heard from today, and small businesses, that this is probably one of the more proactive and better positioned things that we could do for our state, and with that I would certainly ask for your support.

WHITNEY: Stephens got that support from six Democrats three Republicans on the committee, enough to pass it. The House then took the unusual step of bringing the bill before all its members for a voice vote immediately. It passed, but will likely get a lot more debate when faces it’s final vote before the full House. That could happen as early as today (Wed 5.4.11) Stephens says she's confident the bill will pass the House. If it does, its next stop is Governor Hickenlooper's desk. The governor has supported the exchange bill and will likely sign it.