Bipartisan Hickenlooper health plan gives tax-exemption nod to hard-hit rural areas

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September 1, 2017, 9:14 am
Gov. John Hickenlooper

Gov. John Hickenlooper

Democratic Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper on Thursday joined seven other governors – two of them Republicans – to push a short-term bipartisan health-insurance plan (pdf) to stabilize the individual and small group insurance markets utilized by an estimated 22 million Americans.

In the plan, Hickenlooper, who partnered on the plan with Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich, proposes a significant move that could exempt insurance companies serving “underserved counties” — with only one or two available insurance plans – from the federal Health Insurance Tax (HIT).

Rural Colorado, including vast swaths of the Western Slope and Eastern Plains, has suffered through some of the highest individual-market health insurance rates in the nation in recent years, with costs expected to continue to sky rocket by up to 40 percent next year.

The plan also proposes allowing “residents in underserved counties to buy into the Federal Employee Benefit Program, giving residents in rural counties access to the same health care as federal workers.”

Hickenlooper, during a press conference at the Colorado Capitol on Thursday that was carried live on Facebook, recognized that rural Colorado is being crushed by runaway insurance rates in the individual market.

“We want to make sure we preserve choices in underserved counties as far as some of the mountain counties and the rural counties on the Easter Plains and the West Slope,” Hickenlooper said. “There are a couple of ways we’re going to try and incentivize more and different insurers to come into the rural or underserved markets.

“It’s tax incentives to get a second coverage in there and offering those people who want it the opportunity to … join the federal health benefit system,” he added. “In many of those cases that would be attractive to people in those markets. For many people, it wouldn’t be because it would be more expensive in some ways, but it offers a pretty strong array of coverage.”

The plan was in the form of a seven-page letter dated Wednesday and sent to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

It was signed by Hickenlooper, Kasich, Republican Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, Independent Alaska Gov. Bill Walker and Democratic Govs. Tom Wolf (Pennsylvania), Terry McAuliffe (Virginia), John Bel Edwards (Louisiana) and Steve Bullock (Montana).

The proposal acknowledges the urgency of stabilizing the individual markets when Congress is back in session after the August break, following the failure of GOP efforts earlier this summer to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Many insurance companies are finalizing individual and small-group plan prices for 2018 by the end of September, and registration on the open market starts Nov. 1.

“Regardless of their party or position, I stand ready and willing to work with anyone who is serious about reforming our broken healthcare system,” Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner said in a prepared statement. “While we wait to see more specific policy details, I look forward to continuing discussions with both the governors and anyone interested in finding real solutions.”

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, a Boulder Democrat who is now seeking the Dem nomination to run for governor in 2018, hosted digital roundtables on healthcare in February and June. He also sent a letter to Ryan outlining a bipartisan plan to improve the Affordable Care Act, and in May he voted against the GOP American Health Care Act that narrowly passed in the House.

“I am pleased that Gov. Hickenlooper and Gov. Kasich are promoting a bipartisan healthcare plan,” said Polis, who, along with Colorado Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, is a member of the congressional Problem Solvers Caucus. “I believe bipartisanship is key to making any progress on healthcare.

“I’m thrilled to know that many of our bipartisan solutions are echoed by Gov. Hickenlooper and Gov. Kasich, and I look forward to working with them to make healthcare affordable and accessible for all,” Polis added.

Coffman, who represents a largely Front Range District, did not comment via social media or his official website on the Hickenlooper-Kasich plan, but he is the sole Colorado Republican who voted against the AHCA — a bill that stripped away most of the key components of the ACA and was never even seriously considered in the Senate.

Eagle County Commissioner Jill Ryan, who’s seeking the Democratic nomination to seek the Colorado State House District 26 seat being vacated by Diane Mitsch Bush, has worked for years at the local and state level to try to bring down Western Slope health care and insurance costs.

Ryan says there’s a drag on the local economy for small businesses whose owners don’t have access to large group plans but on the individual market are facing premiums, deductibles and out-of-pockets costs rivaling their monthly mortgages.

“It’s really driving people’s choices,” said Ryan, a former public health manager for Eagle County with a master’s degree in epidemiology and health planning. “I think every year Diane Mitsch Bush has had some sort of health care bill, and I rounded up people to testify, and they always say that as a small business owner on the individual market I may just have to move to Denver or get a quote ‘real job.’”

Under the header “Offer choices in underserved counties,” the Hickenlooper-Kasich plan offers the following temporary solution for skyrocketing health insurance costs in rural areas:

“Congress should foster competition and choice in counties where consumers lack options because there is only one carrier on the exchange. We ask Congress to encourage insurance companies to enter underserved counties by exempting these insurers from the federal health insurance tax on their exchange plans in those counties. We also ask Congress to allow residents in underserved counties to buy into the Federal Employee Benefit Program, giving residents in rural counties access to the same health care as federal workers. While these proposals may be temporary solutions, they will help provide Americans with additional choices until other policies have improved the market dynamics.”

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David O. Williams
David O. Williams is an award-winning freelance reporter based in the Vail Valley of Colorado, writing on health care, immigration, politics, the environment, energy, public lands, outdoor recreation and sports. His work has appeared in 5280 Magazine, American Way Magazine (American Airlines), the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska), Aspen Daily News, the Aspen Times, Beaver Creek Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, the Colorado Independent, Colorado Politics formerly the Colorado Statesman), Colorado Public News, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Colorado Independent (formerly Colorado Confidential), the Colorado Springs Independent, the Colorado Statesman (now Colorado Politics), the Denver Daily News, the Denver Post, the Durango Herald, the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the Eastside Journal (Bellevue, Washington), ESPN.com, the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the Greeley Tribune, the Huffington Post, the King County Journal (Seattle, Washington), KUNC.org (northern Colorado), LA Weekly, the London Daily Mirror, the Montgomery Journal (Maryland), The New York Times, the Parent’s Handbook, Peaks Magazine (now Epic Life), People Magazine, Powder Magazine, the Pueblo Chieftain, PT Magazine, Rocky Mountain Golf Magazine, the Rocky Mountain News, SKI Magazine, Atlantic Media's RouteFifty.com (formerly Government Executive State and Local), Ski Magazine, Ski Area Management, SKIING Magazine, the Summit Daily News, United Hemispheres (United Airlines), Vail/Beaver Creek Magazine, Vail en Español, Vail Valley Magazine, the Vail Daily, the Vail Trail and Westword (Denver). Williams is also the founder, publisher and editor of RealVail.com and RockyMountainPost.com.

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