‘Obamacare’ association likely to kill exchange bill

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Bipartisan legislation that would make health insurance less expensive for small businesses is in jeopardy because of its perceived association with national health care reform law, dubbed Obamacare.

Senate Bill 200 would be the first step toward creating a clearing house of information, known as a health insurance exchange, for small business owners and individuals. The exchanges would allow businesses to pool resources, thereby spreading risk and reducing premiums.

Traditionally, small businesses and individuals pay more than large- and medium-sized businesses because there is less bargaining power and greater risk to the insurer.

The bill that seeks to change that isn’t likely to pass, despite its optimistic beginnings.

When it was introduced, it had bipartisan support with sponsors Betty Boyd, D-Lakewood, and Amy Stephens, R-Monument. The National Federation of Independent Businesses helped draft it. The Colorado Consumer Health Initiative had a leading role in its design, and chambers of commerce in Denver and Colorado Springs signaled their support.

It seemed like a sure thing, but everything unraveled during the past week when the talk arose about amending the bill with a requirement that Colorado  opt out of the federal Affordable Care Act before an exchange could start operating.

That created a phantom association with the federal reform efforts, said Stephannie Finley, president of governmental affairs and public policy for the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s just gotten so complicated, so controversial,” she said. “I think the writers should have gotten out in front of it, explained it better. It’s just been tied to Obamacare, and there are people who respond to that – even though it isn’t part of federal law.”

Stephens is the one who suggested the amendment to her own bill. She claimed the exchange has been interpreted among her constituents as an indication of support for the federal health care act.

“Federal law has so thoroughly contaminated the public discourse about the nation’s health care system that even a simple and common-sense idea like health care exchanges has become toxic,” she wrote in the letter to the senate.

The amendment failed in the Senate committee, but could be included in the Legislative Council or House of Representatives. The Legislative Council is now reviewing the bill because of its potential widespread effects.

Gov. John Hickenlooper has vowed to veto the bill if it makes it to him with the amendment, and Republicans won’t pass the bill without it.

Almost all parties agree that if that happens, it’ll be small businesses that suffer.

“We’re not doing this because of federal health care laws; we’re opposed to the Affordable Care Act,” said Tony Gagliardi, executive director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses in Colorado.

Gagliardi said 60 percent of the NFIB members in Colorado support the bill.Stephens indicated this week that she has been seeking a compromise. She’s under pressure from constituents who oppose the bill as well as well as from businsss groups that support it.

In the end, even if the bill is killed, it won’t mean the end of exchanges.

Under the Affordable Care Act, the federal government will establish exchanges in states that do not have such a program by 2013.

“(Senate Bill 200) is Colorado-specific,” Gagliardi said. “This is what Colorado businesses need. Who knows what the federal government is going to do?”