Rep. Ken Buck is trying to prevent Colorado from expanding health care access to undocumented residents

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Colorado Republican U.S. Rep. Ken Buck speaks with KNUS radio talk show host Steffan Tubbs at the Western Conservative Summit Friday, June 3, 2022.

GOP Rep. Ken Buck does not want federal funds to be used to help subsidize health care for undocumented immigrants, and he’s taking aim specifically at a program in Colorado.

Buck introduced the “No Federal Tax Dollars for Illegal Aliens Health Insurance Act”, with GOP Reps. Lauren Boebert and Doug Lamborn as cosponsors. It would prohibit federal funds from being used to “offset the cost of health insurance coverage (including through premium or cost-sharing reductions) or to provide any other benefit” for undocumented individuals.

Colorado requested and was granted what’s known as a Section 1332 Innovation Waiver to fully implement the Colorado Option, a new type of health-care plan that the state government is pushing insurers to offer in the individual and small-group market at lower costs to consumers. Under the waiver, if the state can reduce the cost of health insurance and thereby save the federal government money, it gets to keep those dollars, known as “pass-through” funds.

Colorado intends to use its savings to provide subsidies to Coloradans, including people whose immigration status makes them ineligible for direct federal help.

Buck’s bill is in “direct response” to the approval of the waiver.

“Instead of using section 1332 waivers as originally intended, to grant states flexibility to implement innovative health care solutions, Democrats are using the waiver program to make federally funded health insurance a reality for illegal aliens,” said Buck in a statement. “This is a slap in the face to American taxpayers who get up, go to work, and are fighting to survive amidst 9.1% Bidenflation.”

Buck’s office did not make him available for an interview in time for this story.

Polis and immigrant health experts say bills like Buck's just drive up costs in the long run

A spokesman for Gov. Jared Polis said Buck’s bill would drive up insurance costs for Coloradans. 

“The Colorado Option will save Coloradans between 3-19 percent on health care at a time when people need more money in their pockets and expand access to quality care — especially in rural Colorado,” said Conor Cahill, Polis’s press secretary. “This misguided federal bill is simply reckless and it is disappointing to see Colorado’s own representative trying to block Coloradans from saving money when he should be doing everything in his power to advocate for our state.”

While states are generally prohibited from using federal funds to pay for health coverage for undocumented people, some have found workarounds, said Drishti Pillai, director of immigrant health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-profit focused on health issues.

For example, California was able to recoup federal funds that would have been provided for emergency expenses when it expanded health insurance to undocumented young adults.

Not giving undocumented people access to buy health insurance, she said, results in “uncompensated care costs because at that point an individual will either go without needed care or they will have to present themselves to an emergency room … so it leads to higher costs in the long run.”

Through the Section 1332 waiver, Colorado will get an estimated $135 million in federal funding to expand access to health insurance, including by expanding subsidies to cover premiums.

'For me, health care remains a basic human right'

One of the sponsors of the Colorado Option law, Democratic state Rep. Iman Jodeh, said the point of the Colorado Option is to provide health care for Coloradans, regardless of their legal status. She’s not surprised by Buck’s bill.

“Passing a law like this on the federal level would just open the doors to a cascading event of really bad policies that would affect health care and insurance in Colorado,” she said.

She described the Colorado Option as “model legislation” and said Buck’s bill is based on a minority of the “radical right” and not a reflection of what Americans want to see for the country.

“For me, health care remains a basic human right and that should never be decided based on the color of your skin, your zip code and certainly not your residency status,” she said.

This is not the first time Buck crossed horns with state policy over services for the undocumented population.

He reintroduced a bill this Congress, which Lamborn is also a co-sponsor on, that would withhold certain federal grants to states that issue driver’s licenses to undocumented individuals like Colorado does.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, there are an estimated 162,000 undocumented people in Colorado, with about 59 percent uninsured.

The state has made a number of moves in recent years to help unauthorized residents access health care.