Pitkin County commissioners received an update Tuesday from state Rep. Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, who spoke at length about the bipartisan “reinsurance” bill that received 11th-hour passage during the recently-ended legislative session.
McCluskie co-sponsored the bill in the House, while Pitkin County’s other voice in the Colorado General Assembly, state Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, was a chief proponent in the upper chamber. The legislation is designed to lower health-care premiums between 10 percent and 30 percent for those buying insurance on the market for individuals.
“I probably spent the bulk of my session working on reinsurance,” McCluskie told commissioners.
The annual legislative gathering, which began Jan. 4 and ended May 3, was the first of her career as an elected official. In November, McCluskie won the House District 61 seat formerly held by Millie Hamner, who was term-limited.
Residents and families of Colorado’s Western Slope communities who are not covered by employer plans or Medicare/Medicaid are said to have the highest health-care premiums in the state under the system of exchanges for individuals installed under the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare. Some sources place Western Slope premiums among the most expensive in the nation, McCluskie said.
She said the savings in the state would differ from region to region, but in Grand Junction and the mountain communities, including the Roaring Fork Valley, the cost reduction will be at the upper end, near or at 30 percent.
McCluskie said one family of four from Summit County testified that the cost of their insurance premiums was $2,500 per month — a rate that is higher than their monthly mortgage payment.
The reinsurance bill underwent a few overhauls after it was determined that its first and second versions were at odds with federal regulations. In the end, lawmakers passed a bill that applies $120 million in state funds toward a reinsurance program over the next two years. McCluskie said that while she would have preferred a longer term and a more stable funding mechanism, two years is enough to get the program going.
Just how will reinsurance work? Put simply, the state will pay the claims of some of the most high-risk customers within the health-care exchanges. In effect, the process takes them out of the pools. With the most expensive patients no longer part of the system, the rates for others are expected to drop.
McCluskie said Gov. Jared Polis is expected to sign the bill into law during a visit to Summit County on Friday. The law would establish the program by January 2020, but one potential hurdle remains: The program requires a “state innovation waiver” from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“I feel positive that we’re going to receive federal approval,” McCluskie said, adding that other states have obtained waivers for their health-care innovations. She said an answer to the state insurance commissioner’s application for the waiver is expected in August or September.
While in Summit County, Polis also is expected to sign Senate Bill 004, which was co-sponsored by Donovan and championed in the House by McCluskie.
McCluskie said the new law will allow communities to create their own health-care cooperatives through which members may collectively negotiate rates directly with medical providers. It also will let the co-ops incorporate consumer protections, such as coverage for pre-existing conditions.
McCluskie told commissioners that while the 2019 session didn’t address as much legislation as last year’s gathering, it was far more productive.
Following turnover in the state Senate during last fall’s elections, Democrats now have control of both chambers of the General Assembly. And they retained the governor’s office with the successful election of Polis, a former congressman, who succeeded John Hickenlooper.
“[We] certainly tackled the bigger issues, things I know this community is concerned about as well as the rest of House District 61,” McCluskie said.
Strides were made not only in the health-care arena, but also in education, the environment and the economy, she said, presenting commissioners with fact sheets listing details of bills that passed legislative muster.
McCluskie, who until her successful election served as communications specialist for Summit County schools, said she faced a learning curve early in the session.
“I learned more about health care than I ever thought I’d want to — and I still know nothing,” she joked.
Progress in education came about with a bill that provides money for all-day kindergarten at school systems across the state, she said. The issue had been discussed by lawmakers in Denver for more than a decade. Currently, the state provides enough funding to cover a half-day of kindergarten.
McCluskie also brought up another bill she co-sponsored that allows for creation of early childhood development service districts. The entities would provide services for children from birth through age 8, addressing educational, health, mental health and developmental needs.
The districts would be able to cross political and geographical boundaries, she said.
McCluskie also spoke of her co-sponsorship of a bill to increase the number of four-year degree programs offered by Colorado Mountain College.
She added that the legislature approved an item for the statewide fall ballot aimed at further “De-Brucing” the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR. Essentially, the election question will ask voters if the state can keep excess tax revenue above the thresholds mandated by TABOR.