- The Washington Times - Monday, May 12, 2014

Frustration with Colorado’s shaky health care exchange erupted Monday after the program’s board voted to award a five-figure bonus to the CEO even as members consider raising fees in order to keep up with costs.

Connect for Health Colorado CEO Patty Fontneau received a $14,000 bonus for last year’s performance, along with a 2.5 percent “cost of living” raise for this year during Monday’s board meeting, according to Health News Colorado.

That brings her annual salary to $195,300, placing her third in the nation among state health exchange directors, behind only California and Connecticut.

“The challenge felt daunting and was daunting and Patty was very successful at leading the charge,” said board chair Gretchen Hammer in Health News Colorado.

Critics of the state health exchange board were apoplectic, pointing out that the Connect for Health board is considering raising its 1.4 percent “user fee” on those who buy insurance through the exchange, as well as tacking a surcharge onto those who obtain their insurance elsewhere.

That additional fee on buyers outside the exchange would affect 875,000 residents and raise an estimated $13 million, a financial infusion that may be needed to keep the exchange self-sufficient after federal funding dries up at the end of the year.

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Republican state Sen. Owen Hill said he was stunned by the board’s decision to give Ms. Fontneau a bonus, given all the problems with the exchange’s rollout, which has received $177 million in federal funds.

“I’m floored by this,” said Mr. Hill. “This would be like giving a raise to the bankers in 2008 after the financial collapse.”

Connect for Health Colorado has been criticized for failing to meet its enrollment goals, but at least it’s operational, unlike other Obamacare state exchanges. Three of the exchanges — those in Maryland, Massachusetts and Oregon — have already been shut down, while those in Hawaii and Nevada are on the brink of having their states do the same, according to the Federalist.

Connect for Health Colorado was already under fire for giving a 10 percent raise in April to its chief marketing officer. The exchange plans to spend $7 million in the next fiscal year on its 49 full-time employees, along with their travel, meetings and office space.

“They’re so tight on money that they’re talking about doing a $13 million unconstitutional tax on health insurance plans,” said Mr. Hill. “This [fee] is going to hit every Coloradan, whether you buy through the exchange or not. So they’re taxing Coloradans $13 million because they’re in such dire financial straits, yet they’re giving the CEO of their broken system another $14,000 a year?”

Under Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, all tax increases must be approved by the voters. Whether Connect’s proposed fee on health insurance buyers outside the exchange is actually a tax may become an issue for the courts.

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News of the bonus prompted Americans for Prosperity-Colorado to renew the call for a state audit of the health care exchange. Senate Democrats killed a bill to audit the exchange in March after Ms. Fontneau testified that the program had already undergone a federal audit.

Documents released under an open-record request later showed that the exchange had self-reported using federal forms but had not been audited independently by a federal agency, according to the Colorado Observer.

“It’s time for Governor [John] Hickenlooper to do his job and find out how Ms. Fontneau and her employees are spending taxpayer dollars,” said Dustin Zvonek, director of Americans for Prosperity-Colorado. “Regardless of what you think about Obamacare, all Coloradans deserve accountability on how their hard-earned money is being spent.”

The Colorado Division of Insurance followed President Obama’s lead earlier this month by announcing that it would allow insurance carriers to offer plans until 2015 that don’t comply with the minimum coverage required by the Affordable Care Act.

Connect for Health Colorado announced May 1 that it has signed up 129,000 residents for health insurance on the exchange, or about a third of the 337,000 Coloradans who have had their policies canceled under Obamacare.

“What’s going on with health care in our state harms young people, it harms families,” said Colorado Republican strategist Jonathan Lockwood. “If it wasn’t such an outrage and a serious issue, you could call it a joke. It’s comedy hour apparently to these people.”

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

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