Democrats Say Pandemic Proves The Need For Paid Leave And Affordable Insurance, But It May Ruin Their Bills

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Speaker of the House KC Becker stands at the podium during the National Anthem on the first day of the 2020 legislative session. Colorado State Capitol, Jan. 8, 2020.

Before the pandemic suspended normal life in Colorado, state lawmakers were getting ready to debate bills on two very big topics: health insurance reforms and paid leave for workers.

The COVID-19 crisis has lent a new sense of urgency to both those issues — while also making it less likely that lawmakers will act on them before the November elections.

“That’s not something that Republicans are celebrating or spiking the football. We realize that our colleagues on the other side of the aisle wanted to advance policies that they consider to be good, but the financial reality is probably working against those two bills,” said Republican Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert.

The state option bill was the talk of Colorado’s health care world just a few months ago, attracting hundreds of thousands of dollars in opposition spending from health industry groups. Gov. Jared Polis put his muscle behind it, saying in his State of the State address that hospitals needed to give up some of their profits. Polis’ goal is to create a new state-backed insurance option, with strict rules around its cost to consumers, and force hospitals to accept it.

“If it doesn’t happen this year, it would be disappointing, but it certainly would make sense to focus on other things,” said Democratic Rep. Dylan Roberts of Avon, a sponsor of the “state option” health bill. “However, a public health crisis makes it abundantly clear that more people need access to health treatment.”

Another sponsor said the health insurance bill’s fate was an “open question” this year.

More than 16 million people have filed for unemployment since the pandemic started taking off in the US. Because many Americans’ health insurance is tied to their work, that suggests a huge number of people are losing their coverage in the middle of a public health crisis.  

But the issue has virtually disappeared from view in recent weeks as hospitals and politicians have focused all their attention on the coronavirus surge. Roberts acknowledged the pandemic could keep his effort on the backburner, perhaps until next session. Under his bill, the public insurance option would have been available starting in 2022.

The Colorado Hospital Association has warned that the public option could bankrupt some of its members that operate on thin margins. CHA spokesperson Julie Lonborg said the outbreak has already put those hospitals in “great peril” financially because of the cancellation of elective surgeries.

“COVID certainly shines a light on that and puts a focus on [their limited budgets],” she said. 

Republican leaders in the legislature have echoed the hospital association’s concerns. House Minority Leader Patrick Neville tweeted that Polis had previously “attacked” hospitals, adding: “I hope we see their value now.”

The sponsors have said the bill targets the revenues of wealthy Front Range hospitals, offering higher payment rates for other hospitals.

Paid leave backers not giving up hope

While supporters of the public option are bracing for a delay, their counterparts working on another big Democratic priority — paid family and medical leave for workers — say they’re still optimistic.

Democrats have been working for years to mandate paid leave for parents to bond with new children and workers to deal with illnesses and family emergencies. The current sponsors haven’t introduced their bill yet, but Democratic Rep. Matt Gray of Broomfield said they would have their plan ready to go when the legislature reconvenes.

“All the indications we’ve gotten from anybody is, ‘We want to move forward,’” said Gray, who’s working on the bill along with Democratic Senators Faith Winter and Dominick Moreno and Rep. Yadira Caraveo.

Advocates for the policy say the coronavirus outbreak has shown how many Americans don’t have paid leave from work, and how much they need it. There have been stories of grocery store employees and others going to work sick because they needed the money. In response, state and federal officials have used their power to temporarily require companies to provide some level of paid leave. Early in the outbreak, Gov. Jared Polis ordered certain businesses to offer four days of paid leave for people with suspected COVID-19 cases. 

On the federal level, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act requires some employers to provide anywhere from two to 10 weeks of paid leave for people to care for themselves or another person under quarantine, or to care for children.

“It has highlighted just how fragile and vulnerable our social and insurance safety net system is,” said Scott Wasserman, president of the liberal Bell Policy Center. "All of these issues remain really critical priorities, and I think we’ve kicked the can down the road for a very long time.” 

But Sen. Holbert said the crisis hadn’t shaken his opposition to mandating paid leave. “I think that in our free market economy, in a representative republic, that’s a level of government involvement in my life and the lives of other people that I don’t agree with,” he said.

Kelly Brough, president of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, said that the federal government and businesses themselves had already responded effectively to workers’ needs.

“To propose something that puts an increased burden on those employees or those small employers, we’re really worried about. We think job No.1 is, let’s get those employees back to work. Let’s keep ‘em on payroll and keep those employers viable.”

But Ashley Panelli, an organizer with 9to5 Colorado, said that working families were still falling through the cracks.

“They don’t even know who to ask when their bosses say, ‘You’re not getting paid for your sick time.’ People are just not sure where to turn or what their rights even are,” said Panelli, who leads the nonprofit’s campaign for paid leave.

The Colorado proposal is still going through significant revisions; lawmakers have been negotiating with the governor all year. There are two major approaches: They could have employers provide the benefit themselves, or they could create a state-run program to pay for workers’ time off.

Polis favors the first option, but in recent weeks, as lawmakers have continued to work on the bill from their homes, they’ve returned to the idea of a state-run program.

“We have definitely reopened the conversation about more of a social insurance model,” Gray said. That could be a problem in the long run, but Gray hasn’t “even tried to speak to the governor about this, since all of this happened.”

If the legislature doesn’t act this year, outside groups may try to put the paid leave question on the 2020 ballot

Budget overshadows other issues

The legislature is scheduled to return from its current recess on May 18. Colorado’s Supreme Court has ruled the session can continue past its original end date in order to make up for lost days during the pandemic. But it’s unclear how lawmakers might use that time.

“If the epidemic is still raging and we’re still looking at pretty significant distancing measures, then we’re going to limit the scope of what we do,” said Democratic House Assistant Majority Leader Rep. Chris Kennedy of Lakewood, co-sponsor of the state option bill.

The General Assembly must pass the state’s budget before the state’s next fiscal year begins on July 1. Once they’ve done that though, lawmakers could temporarily adjourn once again, depending on the severity of the outbreak.

The budget could have a big impact on the fates of other major bills. Forecasters have cut $1 billion from the state’s expected revenues already, and as the pandemic drags on, further damage may force deep cuts to the budget. That could make the cost of setting up a public insurance option or a paid leave program unaffordable until things improve.

In the meantime, lawmakers are connecting by phone and Zoom to suss out whether their bills can move forward.

“Our bandwidth as a general assembly is going to be significantly narrower than we thought it would be a month ago,” Gray said. “The path for anything gets harder when you have significantly narrower bandwidth.”