How Coloradans Are Taking Stock As Senate Releases Obamacare Repeal

June 22, 2017
Photo: Sen. Mitch McConnell,
Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell after announcing the release of the Republicans' healthcare bill, which attempts to scuttle much of President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, June 22, 2017. 

The Senate released a bill Thursday that aims to overturn the Affordable Care Act -- Obamacare. The bill, which hews closely to a similar measure passed by the House would have a big impact on Colorado, in particular on Medicaid, the federal health program for the poor, disabled and elderly, experts say.

That’s because a quarter of the state's population, 1.4 million people, are enrolled in Medicaid.  It expanded significantly under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.  That helped trim the state's uninsured rate by half, down to about 7 percent.

The Senate bill, called the Better Care Reconciliation Act and crafted in seclusion by Republicans, who control the upper chamber of Congress,  would make deep cuts to Medicaid.  Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner was one of the 13 GOP senators chosen to craft the measure. He told Denver7 he didn't see the final text of the bill until just before its release.

"This is a pretty severe measure in terms of the curtailment of Medicaid,” said Michele Lueck, CEO of the Colorado Health Institute, a health policy analysis group.

Enhanced federal payments to the program would be scaled back starting in 2021.  And it could dramatically overhaul "traditional Medicaid," shrinking it over the next decade.   

Lueck says Colorado would lose $15.5 billion by 2030.  That would lead to tough decisions for state policymakers, involving "reduction of rates to providers, reduction of the population that you're going to cover with Medicaid, or it's going to reduce their benefits,” said Lueck.

The bill would also repeal the individual mandate in Obamacare and get rid of its taxes on wealthy Americans, insurers and others.  

A health policy analyst with the Independence Institute hailed the bill, for its efforts to rein in federal Medicaid spending.   "It's a good step back from the precipice,”  said Linda Gorman, who directs the group's healthcare policy center.  

She says the country needs to decide if it wants a single-payer government system, or if the system can be adjusted to buttress private insurance.  “And I think you'll find the medical care is a whole lot better if you have private markets doing it,” said Gorman.

But the Colorado Hospital Associations Steven Summer worries the bill moves the state "in the wrong direction" and would be especially troubling for the most vulnerable patients.  That includes those in rural Colorado, where hospitals are few and far between and often rely on Medicaid money to stay open.  "Many of those communities are highly dependent on Medicaid for covering their population, so it will put the individuals in those communities most at risk,” said Summer.

A group of heavy hitters in the business world, the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, the Colorado Competitive Council and the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation, released a letter to Colorado Senator Cory Gardner, a Republican, calling Medicaid "critical" to the health of residents and the state's economy.

It warns "fast-paced Medicaid cuts" would risk higher health costs for employers, financial losses to hospitals and uncertainty for the state budget.

The legislation also would defund Planned Parenthood for a year and subsidies could no longer be used to buy health plans that cover abortion.  

“They've kept provisions that will block more than 30,000 women, men and young people in the Rocky Mountain region alone from accessing the trusted reproductive health care they rely on,” said Vicki Cowart, CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said in a statement, "The Senate’s health care bill, like the House bill, will take Colorado backward. It makes even deeper cuts to health care for the most vulnerable and shifts the costs onto hard working middle class Coloradans. It's no surprise that a bill drafted in secret, without public hearings and scrutiny, and planned for a rushed vote within days, will hurt Coloradans. We urge Senators Gardner and Bennet to vote no on this flawed bill."

Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet was quick to criticize the Senate bill on Twitter:

Sen. Gardner said in a statement, "“This is the first I’ve viewed the legislation so I am beginning to carefully review it as we continue to look at ways to rescue Colorado from the continued negative impacts of the Affordable Care Act on our healthcare system. It’s frustrating that instead of actually reviewing the legislative text some have decided to immediately oppose the bill before it was even introduced. This deserves serious debate, not knee-jerk reaction.”