- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 25, 2015

DENVER — With Colorado’s shaky Obamacare exchange in peril, some health care advocates are calling for voters to scrap it and replace it with something far more ambitious.

Proponents of a statewide single-payer health care system have submitted 156,107 signatures, far more than the 98,492 required to qualify for the November 2016 ballot, to the Colorado secretary of state’s office for verification.

If the measure qualifies, Colorado would immediately become ground zero for a national debate on the concept of steep tax increases in return for guaranteed health care coverage for all residents, all against the backdrop of a pivotal presidential race.

The program, called ColoradoCare, comes with a steep price tag: $25 billion, which would be raised with a 10 percent payroll tax increase. At the same time, the plan would provide all residents with Medicare-style health care coverage and allow the state to dump Obamacare.

Whether Colorado voters would agree to take on that kind of tax hike is another question — two years ago, they rejected a comparatively paltry $1 billion tax increase for education — but there is no doubt that the “no-more-Obamacare” argument resonates with certain segments of the population.

“For some people, I say, ‘It gets us out of Obamacare,’ and some people cheer,” T.R. Reid, a spokesman for ColoradoCareYES, said during the signature-gathering campaign. “It’s a purple state, and we have this purple plan that can appeal to both sides.”

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Under the proposal, known as Initiative 20, employers would be on the hook for the lion’s share, 6.67 percent, and employees would be responsible for 3.33 percent of the 10 percent. The program would be administered by a nonprofit cooperative, not a state agency, run by a 21-member board.

Much as Colorado conservatives may dislike Obamacare, they were quick Friday to denounce the single-payer proposal.

“‘Affordable’ care just got more expensive in Colorado,” Colorado Senate Republicans said on Twitter.

Jonathan Lockwood, executive director of the free-market Advancing Colorado, warned that ColoradoCare “will triple Coloradans’ taxes to rake in a state budget-sized $25 billion a year.”

“ColoradoCare is a charade, and their campaign has been deceptive on every level, preying on millennials and the underserved communities, promising them relief that will deliver pain,” Mr. Lockwood said.

Supporters argue that the state’s $25 billion estimate is too high and insist that the plan would actually save people the money they would normally spend on health insurance. In addition, the program would allow Colorado to opt out of the Affordable Care Act, which would free up federal dollars.

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“We’re a rich, compassionate country. We should provide health care for everybody,” said Mr. Reid, a former Washington Post reporter. “We’re not going to get there at the federal level. The federal government can’t do much. They’re gridlocked. So the way we’re going to get there is state by state.”

The plan also allows Colorado to avoid joining the federal Obamacare exchange if the state exchange crumbles. The struggling Connect for Health Colorado took another hit Oct. 16 when state insurance cooperative Colorado HealthOp was dropped from the annual Nov. 1 rollout over a lack of financial stability.

“Earlier this month, the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare (CMS), announced it would only reimburse the nation’s health insurers 12.6% of what they were entitled under the program — only $362 million out of $2.9 billion promised,” the state Division of Insurance said in a statement.

“Colorado HealthOP was expecting around $16.2 million this year from the risk corridor payments, but instead will only receive about $2 million,” the statement said.

The move left 82,000 policyholders without insurance and further contributed to the sense that Connect for Health Colorado may be unable to remain solvent without significant federal support.

The signatures were submitted — some of them wheeled in on a hospital gurney — to the secretary of state’s office on the same day that the insurance division announced that health insurance premiums would rise in Colorado by an average of 7 percent for next year.

Leading the ColoradoCareYES campaign is Democratic state Sen. Sally Aguilar, a doctor who previously proposed legislation to enact a single-payer system.

After the bill was defeated two years ago, she said, she began working to bring the idea before the voters.

“We tried to pass it in the legislature. But with the money in politics these days, there’s no chance,” Ms. Aguilar told the Denver Business Journal. “Fortunately, in Colorado, if the legislature refuses to do what’s needed, the people can vote it into law through a ballot initiative.”

The proposal has already drawn national attention as a model for other states interested in going beyond Obamacare to offer universal health care.

“It is a monumental proposal that could change the face of our nation,” Occupy Democrats said in a statement. “It sets a precedent of recognizing that access to quality health care is a right, not a privilege to be awarded to those who can afford it.”

If the Colorado measure does qualify for the ballot, Mr. Reid said, other states, starting with Oregon and Washington, would follow with single-payer plans of their own.

“Here’s what I’m going to say to them: ‘We beat you to [recreational] marijuana, and we’ll beat you to universal coverage,’” Mr. Reid said with a laugh.

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

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