Some of the state lawmakers overseeing a key part of the federal health care law in Colorado are getting sticker shock over its proposed price tag. CPR Health Reporter Eric Whitney was at Tuesday’s meeting of a special legislative committee and filed this report.
This is a transcript of Eric’s story.
Reporter Eric Whitney: The item in question is the so-called “health insurance exchange” Colorado is setting up under the federal health law known as Obamacare. It’s supposed to be a place where people can easily buy health coverage, which the law requires most Americans to have starting next year.
The exchange is being branded as “Connect for Health Colorado,” and it started advertising for customers this week. This is promotional language from a video posted on its website:
"Connect for Health Colorado health insurance marketplace. It’s an online shopping site, where you shop for health insurance that fits you."
Reporter: How expensive could that be?
Patty Fontneau: So the grant request is for $125 million.
Reporter: That’s Patty Fontneau, CEO of Connect for Health, explaining how much the exchange is asking for in additional start-up money from the federal government. It’s already received about $61 million.
Republicans on the legislative committee that oversees the exchange think the total is way too much.
Bob Gardner: The size of this grant leaves me fairly speechless.
Reporter: That’s El Paso County Representative Bob Gardner.
Gardner: Frankly, we were given to understand that we were running the leanest, most cost effective exchange in the country, by any measure, and so it’s disappointing.
Reporter: To be fair, Connect for Health is doing a lot more than just setting up an online shopping site. Gretchen Hammer, chair of the exchange board, says it will cost tens of millions of dollars to also set up ...
Gretchen Hammer: ... a robust customer service support network, including a call center, and investments in local community partners who will be able to provide support to understand the new opportunities.
Reporter: In other words, Connect for Health wants to hire lots of people to help consumers shop for health insurance either over the phone or in person, starting this fall.
Part of their job will be explaining what the promotional video hints at, that there will be subsidies to help some people afford required health insurance.
Video: With low cost and even zero premium plans, for those whose income qualifies.
Reporter: Connect for Health is supposed to help people figure out if they’re eligible for subsidies, and if they are, to help them apply.
So – lots of stuff Connect for Health is trying to do. And that’s why it’s asking the federal government for $125 million more dollars.
Republicans may not like the size of that request, but they don’t have the votes to stop it.
Democrats say Colorado would be foolish not to ask for that much money.
Jessi Ulibarri: As I understand it, if we don’t receive these funds, those federal dollars will go to another state.
Reporter: That’s Senator Jessi Ullibarri of Adams County. He says if Coloradans are going to pay federal taxes, it only makes sense for the state to get as many of them back as possible. Plus, exchange executives say if they can’t cover all the start-up costs with federal grants, they’ll have to raise fees on customers, fees that are already set at a little under $22 per person per year.
At this point, it’s all but a sure thing that Colorado will send in the $125 million grant request later this month, and Washington is likely to send Colorado most if not all the money it’s asking for.
NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Colorado's health exchange had received $80 million in federal funding to date. The correct number is about $61 million.