Opinion: Health care exchange key bipartisan legislative victory of 2011

By State Sen. Betty Boyd

Americas health care system is good in many ways, but affordable and easy to navigate it is not, especially for Coloradans in the individual and small-group health insurance markets. Thats why Republican Rep. Amy Stephens and I set aside political differences this session to pass Senate Bill 200 creating the Colorado Health Benefits Exchange.

The health exchange is a bipartisan, uniquely Colorado solution to the challenges in the health care industry in our state.

In fact, it is the only exchange bill in the country to have passed through split chambers, a testament to Colorados ability to get things done for the common good rather than for the benefit of just one party.

Once up and running in 2014, the health benefits exchange will provide a one-stop shop for individuals and small businesses that want to compare prices and benefits packages, pool risk, and more easily and inexpensively purchase health insurance. The exchange will offer a choice of plans, facilitate competition to improve quality and lower costs, and offer a simple, navigable interface to help Coloradans purchase the health plans that best suit their needs.

This legislation is remarkable both for its bipartisan support, including that of Gov. John Hickenlooper, and for the historically broad coalition that supported the policy and encouraged its passage.

Consumer groups, including the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative and the Colorado Coalition for the Medically Underserved, among many others, supported the legislation for its promise to make insurance more accessible and more affordable for the 800,000 Coloradans who lack coverage.

The coalition also included some of Colorados leading business associations: the Colorado Competitive Council, the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, Colorado Concern, and the National Federation of Independent Businesses. Business groups are offering their support for the health exchange in the hope that it will free small business owners from the administrative and financial challenges of providing health insurance for their employees.

More than a dozen other groups with stakes in health care in Colorado have supported the legislation, together representing millions of Coloradans. Like Rep. Stephens and I, they believe that the exchange will make individuals healthier, our economy more robust, and Colorado a better place to live.

To be clear, the exchange is not run by the government nor will it offer government-sponsored health insurance plans. That means the exchange will not be funded by Colorado general fund dollars. All Coloradans who have insurance will be able to keep that insurance if they so choose.

By design, the bill itself is comparatively lean, weighing in at 11 pages (the federal Affordable Care Act, by contrast, was roughly 2,000 pages). We kept it brief because legislatures are better at addressing big picture problems while delegating the details to experts in the field.

Initially the exchange will serve over 300,000 Coloradans who are on the small-group or individual markets. It will not serve Coloradans on Medicaid and CHP, Medicare or ERISA plans.

Senate Bill 200 establishes a 12-member board of directors comprised of a range of experts who will represent the diverse stakeholders in Colorados health care landscape. The board, to be seated this summer, is charged with figuring out many of the details, like who to hire as management, what software to buy, how to reach out to and engage customers and partners, and how to apply for and allocate grant dollars.

The board does not have free reign and the legislature and state auditor will continue to exercise oversight and scrutiny of operations and finances to ensure that the board is acting in the best interests of those it was created to serve Coloradans in the individual and small-group markets. Senate Bill 200 asks the governor and legislative leaders who make the board appointments to consider the array of skills necessary to bring the most knowledgeable and skilled leaders to the table.

We believe that Senate Bill 200 has created a good foundation for the Colorado Health Benefits Exchange, but future legislatures will no doubt return to add protections or remove red tape or otherwise make improvements, as circumstances require.

The establishment of the health exchange is an important step in addressing the access, cost and quality challenges in our current health care/health delivery system. It may not be a perfect bill, but we think its a strong step forward and arguably the most important piece of legislation to emerge from the General Assembly in 2011.

Sen. Betty Boyd (D-Lakewood) is president pro tempore of the State Senate and chair of the Health and Human Services Committee.

Opinions communicated in Solutions represent the view of individual authors, and may not reflect the position of the University of Colorado Denver or the University of Colorado system.