Rep. Amy Stephens at a town hall meeting in Colorado Springs March 23, 2011. Photo: Eric Whitney
The most important health care bill before the state legislature this year is being delayed again. The bi-partisan “health insurance exchange” bill was supposed to see its first debate yesterday (Thur 3/24), but now it’s being held for another week.
Colorado Public Radio Health Reporter Eric Whitney says Republicans and Democrats both have some work to do selling the bill.
WHITNEY: Senate Democrats say they've pushed back the exchange bill's first hearing by a week to, quote, “give people more time to prepare,” in an already busy legislative session.
They'd hoped to introduce the bill six weeks ago, but negotiations to make it bi-partisan proved difficult. It wasn't until Monday that Governor Hickenlooper could call a press conference to say the bill was finally being introduced.
HICKENLOOPER: I'm delighted to be standing with Senator Betty Boyd, Representative Amy Stephens, and we're announcing together a bi-partisan effort to introduce legislation that's going to create the Colorado Health Benefits Exchange.
WHITNEY: Creating a “health benefits exchange” basically means re-organizing a big chunk of Colorado's health insurance market. The goal is to give small businesses and people who buy individual insurance policies more choices. Instead of only being offered one plan or a few through their employer, people would be able to shop for lots of different plans in the exchange. And they could use their employer’s contribution to help buy the policy best for them.
Republicans generally like the sound of that, but the exchange bill itself smacks of obamacare.
SOUND: Busy room at Amy Stephens' town hall in Colorado Springs Wednesday, March 23, 2011, establish quickly and fade under.
WHITNEY: In the Republican-controlled House the bill is being carried by Majority Leader Amy Stephens from El Paso County. At a town hall meeting in Colorado Springs Wednesday, she read questions that people hastily scrawled on 3x5 cards and handed up to the front of the room.
STEPHENS: ‘it appears like we are putting the cart before the horse, and putting the nail in the coffin for any hopes of repealing Obamacare?’
Not at all. Not at all. Exchanges are a Republican idea.
WHITNEY: The conservative grassroots wants to repeal “Obamacare” - their term for the Affordable Care Act passed last year . They worry that because the Act requires states to create exchanges, that if Republicans here back an exchange, they'll be doing the White House's bidding. Stephens said again and again that Colorado's exchange can be set up in way doesn't push the President's reform plan forward.
STEPHENS: hey, I'm about opting us out of Obamacare, I think it's the worst thing to come down the pike. I think it will bankrupt states.
WHITNEY: Stephens says she fought hard to make sure the bill won't allow Democrats to dominate the new board that will set up Colorado's exchange. And she insists that the legislature has to have an oversight committee to watchdog the exchange board.
But did she convince anyone?
Retiree Mike Morton, who volunteers for the county Republican Party, was in the audience.
WHITNEY: so when you came into the meeting you were pretty skeptical? Or you thought this bill was bad news?
MORTON: Yes, I did. As a matter of fact I read the bill.
WHITNEY: Morton says that after hearing Stephens talk about the bill, he's still not sure he can get behind it, but he has a more open mind.
MORTON: I don't know, I tell you what I'm gonna do, I'm gonna go home and do some research on the plan itself.
WHITNEY: Tea Party Activist Richard Eluterio, on the other hand, hated the bill when he saw it, and says Stephens' defense of it didn't sway him.
ELUTERIO: it doesn't change my mind about my concerns, which is the nationalization of our health care.
WHITNEY: At the other end of the political spectrum, backers of the Affordable Care Act were celebrating.
SOUND: cheer at beginning of this clip, fade down just before guy starts talking, keep under
WHITNEY: Wednesday was the one-year anniversary of the President signing the Act, and progressive groups were touting its early accomplishments.
SOUND: bring back up - (over public address system) free preventative care! – Cheer!- No annual Cap! Cheer!, (fade under)
WHITNEY: But not everybody was at the capitol just to party.
SHAFFER (PHON): Oh, I'm not celebrating that. I'm just here because I want people to get interested in how these things are done, and help get them done.
WHITNEY: Denver Retiree Lois Shaffer was reading a copy of the exchange bill when I bumped into her at the capitol. She could be a reverse image of some of the Republicans at Amy Stephens’ town hall: Shaffer likes the Affordable Care Act, - it’s the exchanges she’s skeptical about.
SHAFFER: I don't find exchanges to be the most efficient way to do this, but I do wan to support what Obama has – the compromises he's had to make.
WHITNEY: Democrats want to get an exchange set up quickly, so they can apply for federal grants to help run the exchanges. Republicans have an interest in passing a bill because if the state legislature doesn’t create its own exchange, the federal government will do it itself.
The legislature’s first debate on the bill is now scheduled for Thursday, March 31st.