Hickenlooper insists: Health care insurance exchange is apolitical

Special to The Colorado Statesman

Gov. John Hickenlooper on Wednesday night cautioned against turning the proposed health care insurance exchange into a political issue, and instead focused on consumer benefits to having such a virtual insurance marketplace.

The Colorado Health Benefit Exchange Board is currently meeting to implement a health insurance exchange for Colorado. It would be designed similar to how airlines sell tickets online, such as through Expedia and Travelocity. The board has already secured a nearly $1 million planning grant, and the aim is to have the exchange be self-sufficient by 2015. The board must implement a means to solicit gifts, grants and donations to fund the exchange.

The issue has at times been caught up in a partisan fight, with some conservatives believing that implementation of the exchange legitimizes federal health care reform, which is currently being challenged in the courts. One component of the federal law requires states to create health care insurance exchanges — but critics feel it is premature. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals last week struck down a mandate in the federal law that requires nearly all Americans to buy health insurance or pay a penalty. The federal court ruled that the mandate is unconstitutional, paving the way for the law to make its way to the Supreme Court.

But Hickenlooper noted that the exchange in Colorado has bipartisan support, having garnered the sponsorship of House Majority Leader Amy Stephens, R-Monument, who took a political beating from some in the far right for having sponsored Senate Bill 200, the legislation that made the Colorado Health Benefit Exchange Board possible. Hickenlooper said at a public forum in Aurora on Wednesday, hosted by Aurora Health Access, that despite the outcome of federal lawsuits, a health insurance exchange is something that would benefit both consumers and small business owners.

“Not everywhere, but in many parts of our community, there is this persuasion that this is a political issue, that this is going to divide us on whether we’re Republicans or Democrats,” Hickenlooper told an audience inside the auditorium of the North Middle School Health Sciences & Technology Campus. “But I think that this framework is exactly the opposite. It allows us a legitimate opportunity to define not just health care exchanges, but the issue around health care, and truly in an apolitical way.”

Hickenlooper went on to joke that he’ll know he’s doing his job if he manages to upset all political bases invested in the debate.

“I’ll guarantee you from my point of view, and I’m just making a prediction not a promise, but I will find some way to tick off everyone,” he quipped. “The very progressive and more liberal part of our community will say I’m being too restrictive, too demanding, and more conservatives will think I’m giving away the house. I think in the middle there is the solution where we do get everyone covered.”

Hickenlooper has already received criticism from some Democrats and liberals who believe his appointments to the nine-member Colorado Health Benefit Exchange Board is too health industry heavy, and does not rely enough on consumer input. Appointments include representatives from Anthem Blue Cross, UnitedHealthcare of Colorado, Rocky Mountain Health Plan, and TriZetto, a health care information technology provider. But Hickenlooper told The Colorado Statesman following his remarks on Wednesday that his hands were tied. He said in order to get the feedback that was necessary, he had to look within the health insurance industry.

“We wanted to make sure that advocates for low-income populations for different constituencies, that everyone is represented, but I also wanted to make sure that we had someone who really understood technology and how it relates to all aspects of health care, well that’s from within the industry,” explained Hickenlooper. “We tried to find, we looked, we wanted to find someone who was a small business person and had to deal with this, well that was someone from the industry.”

The Democratic governor said he would use his authority to make changes to the board if he felt there was an imbalance leaning too heavy towards one side. A legislative committee charged with keeping watch over the Colorado Health Benefit insurance Board said it would also monitor the balance of power on the board.

Gretchen Hammer, the executive director of the Colorado Coalition for the Medically Underserved who is the newly elected chair of the Colorado Health Benefit Exchange Board, emphasized a balanced approach to the debate. Hammer, who represents patient and consumer interests, defeated board member Robert Ruiz-Moss, with Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield of Colorado, by a 7-2 vote to become interim chairwoman. Board members said they wanted a consumer interest to chair the board given public perception. Hammer said the board is already having a balanced conversation.

“The board is equally committed to having an in depth conversation with the people of the state of Colorado… to figure out how we can build this new marketplace to meet the needs of all communities,” she said.

Meanwhile, some citizens are concerned that the exchange won’t reach all facets of the community, including low-income and minority populations. Aurora resident Maya Wheeler asked the governor how he intends to reach all members of the community.

“What are you going to do to reduce various cuts to enrollment?” asked Wheeler. “Programs such as Medicaid, CHP+, those programs, a lot of times, don’t reach the people that they’re intended for, so how are you going to ensure the health exchange reaches the people it’s intended for?”

Hickenlooper acknowledged the difficulty in reaching out to all communities, but said the exchange will assist in reaching larger portions of the population.

“There are so many ways when you talk about safety nets, the different avenues by which you try to create connections is frustratingly difficult,” he said. “Part of the bigger idea behind this is that we do find a medical home for everyone, that the people have a place where they know they can go on a regular basis.”

Lorez Meinhold, a Hickenlooper deputy policy director on health care, acknowledged that the program is far from perfect, but said SB 200 and the exchange board is a step in the right direction.

“The health care reform bill is a step to getting us in the right direction. It’s not perfect… but it gives us the tools as Coloradans to determine what is the system that is best for Colorado,” she said.

Joan Henneberry, planning director for the Health Benefit Exchange, which is currently being managed by the nonprofit Colorado Health Institute, asked citizens to be patient with the board as the process moves along.

“We want to make sure that individuals and small businesses will come and shop with us,” she said. “The exchange is only part of the solution of health reform, but the success of the exchange is critical to improving the health of everyone in Colorado.”