- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 9, 2014

DENVER — Sen. Mark Udall is coming under criticism for pressuring state regulators to downsize figures showing that nearly 250,000 Coloradans received health insurance-cancellation notices.

A series of emails obtained by the website Complete Colorado show that employees at the state Division of Insurance were under pressure in November to “trash” their figures by members of the Colorado Democrat’s staff.

But Mr. Udall’s office received pushback from Jo Donlin, director of external affairs for the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies’ Division of Insurance, who insisted the department’s numbers were accurate.

“Sen. Udall says our numbers were wrong. They are not wrong. Cancellation notices affected 249,199 people. They want to trash our numbers. I’m holding strong while we get more details. Many have already done early renewals. Regardless, they received cancellation notices,” says a Nov. 14 email from Ms. Donlin to other staff members.

In another email, Ms. Donlin says she sent an explanation to Mr. Udall’s office, but received in return a “very hostile phone call from Udall’s deputy chief of staff.”

She added in the Nov. 15 email that state Insurance Commissioner Marguerite Salazar “is on the phone with [Udall’s] chief of staff right now. Happy Friday!”

Republican strategist Dick Wadhams said the emails reveal a “serious ethical breach” by Mr. Udall’s Senate office.

“For his office to call up a state agency and ask them to jiggle the numbers is reprehensible,” said Mr. Wadhams, former head of the Colorado Republican Party. “Clearly the DOI staff felt bullied, and in fact the DOI numbers were correct. They just didn’t fit into Sen. Udall’s political agenda.”

Udall spokesman James Owens said the senator was concerned that the number of cancellations had been mischaracterized. Although nearly 250,000 Coloradans received cancellation notices, most policyholders were offered alternatives that met the minimum-benefit level mandated under Obamacare.

“To continue saying that 250,000 people had had their plans canceled without qualifying that — saying that actually 96 percent of those people had been given the option to renew — that was misleading folks as to their actual health-care options,” said Mr. Owens. “And so this was just an effort to correct that.”

Critics have pointed out that the new policies often came with higher premiums in order to cover the expanded services required under the Affordable Care Act.

“It’s downright shameful that Sen. Udall would attempt to intimidate state employees to give him political cover after he was caught lying to Coloradans,” Colorado Republican Party Chairman Ryan Call said in a statement.

The flap comes with Mr. Udall seeking re-election amid dropping poll numbers stemming in part from his support for Obamacare.

State Rep. Amy Stephens, who’s running for the Republican Senate nomination, called Thursday for a state and federal investigation into the matter.

“It is clear that Senator Udall tried to use his official office to advance his political interests by pressuring state officials to change facts that he realizes are extremely damaging for his flailing re-election campaign,” Ms. Stephens said in a statement.

An email from Udall legislative director Joe Britton shows that the office was concerned about the negative media attention surrounding the cancellations.

“We need to move on this ASAP — or we’ll be forced to challenge the 249K number ourselves. It is wildly off or at least very misleading and reporters keep repeating it,” says Mr. Britton in a Nov. 14 email.

Mr. Owens disagreed with those who accused Udall staffers with attempting to bully or intimate state employees.

“I read the emails, and it seemed to be just a disagreement about how to characterize this figure, much as we might have any number of disagreements,” said Mr. Owens.

The Republican National Committee released radio ads Monday criticizing Mr. Udall and Senate Democrats running for re-election in other states for saying that they could keep their insurance policies under the Affordable Care Act, which received Politifact’s “Lie of the Year” award in 2013.

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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