Exchange board approves bid for $125 million

By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon

Colorados health exchange board approved a new federal grant request of $125 million on Friday that will include about $13 million to provide in-person assistance to the uninsured.

Some board members tried but failed to boost the grant request even higher to between $133 and $135 million to ensure that Colorado will have enough money to reach out to people who may never have had health insurance and could need extensive help signing up for federal subsidies starting this fall.

Now dubbed Connect for Health Colorado, the new exchange is slated to start signing up customers on Oct. 1.

After a contentious hearing Tuesday with lawmakers on an oversight committee, other board members opposed the $125 million request, saying it was already too costly. (Read more about Tuesdays meeting: Despite outrage, health exchange wants additional $125 million.)

Steve ErkenBrack, president of Rocky Mountain Health Plans, said that both the high-dollar figure of the grant request and a rushed process that left some Republicans lawmakers angry threatened to undermine a history of bipartisan cooperation on health reform in Colorado.

I am very troubled by how this has played out, ErkenBrack said during a Friday morning board meeting.

He praised exchange staff members for working on tight deadlines and said its not their fault that the grant application deadline in mid-May coincided with the end of the legislative session. But, ErkenBrack said managers and board members could have done a much better job of briefing and winning support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Thats why he ultimately voted against the $125 million request and vigorously opposed asking for even more money.

To come back and say were going to increase it even more is extremely problematic, ErkenBrack said.

Board member Arnold Salazar, who is executive of Colorado Health Partnerships, had pushed exchange managers to ask for more federal cash in case Colorado needs help promoting the exchange and signing up new customers, many of whom dont have a clue what the health exchange is or how it may help them get insurance.

Salazar said the exchange will only get one chance to launch and needs to do it right.

If we failwere going to pay in other ways, Salazar said. Lets see if we can get the money in. If it needs to go back to the feds, thats fine. I dont want to undercapitalize this venture at a time when I think its going to be critical.

Sue Birch, executive director of Colorados Medicaid programs, is a non-voting member of the board. She joined Salazar and board member Nathan Wilkes in their unsuccessful bid to convince fellow board members to spend at least $18-to-$20 million on an assistance network and heed states like California where foundations and exchange managers will be spending hundreds of millions to promote outreach and assistance.

Birch said the exchanges success hinges on signing people up.

If we miss on this round, we will forever have tainted our work going forward, Birch said.

In the end, five board members voted in support of the $125 million grant while two opposed it. Voting in favor were Gretchen Hammer, Richard Betts, Nathan Wilkes, Arnold Salazar and Robert Ruiz-Moss. Opposing the grant request were ErkenBrack and Mike Fallon.

The chair and vice-chair of Colorados legislative review committee have already indicated that they will sign off on the grant and staff members are expected to submit it to the federal government by next Wednesday.