Shop for a health plan?

State moves ahead with exchange bill

DENVER – Colorado appears poised to join other states planning expanded marketplaces for health insurance under a compromise deal announced Monday by Democrats, Republicans and Gov. John Hickenlooper.

A bill to be introduced in the Senate sets up a health exchange, which is an insurance marketplace where customers can comparison shop. Supporters say health exchanges pull down prices, because they allow individuals and small businesses to pool risk and get rates usually available only to large businesses.

Health exchanges are a key component of last year’s health-care overhaul. The federal law says states have until 2014 to create exchanges, or else the federal government will establish them.

Colorado is among the states suing to block part of the health-care overhaul, and officials from both parties Monday were careful to tiptoe around questions about how a new health-insurance exchange would affect Colorado’s implementation or rejection of the health-care law.

Hickenlooper, a Democrat, waved away a question about whether he thinks Republican Attorney General John Suthers should drop the lawsuit, which challenges the looming federal requirement that all people have health insurance.

“We’re not trying to make politics out of this,” Hickenlooper said.

But legislative negotiators have been working long hours to develop an exchange plan palatable to both parties.

As proposed, Colorado’s exchange would start with a nine-member panel set up by this summer to craft the exchange. The exchange would start with a $1 million federal grant, with donations solicited later to pay for it.

One issue between Republicans and Democrats has been what role the insurance industry should play on a new health exchange.

The compromise bill says that four of nine members of the panel could come from the insurance industry, but consumers and other businesses would have to be represented, too, and there would be conflict-of-interest rules aimed at keeping panel members honest.

Also, the exchange would be subject to open-meetings and public-records laws.

Health exchanges have critics on the right, too. Some tea party groups have said states shouldn’t comply with the directive to set up exchanges.

House Republican Leader Amy Stephens, the lead GOP negotiator on the Colorado exchange proposal, told reporters Monday that supporting a health exchange is not the same as supporting the health-care overhaul.

Stephens insisted that exchanges are good for business because they encourage competition and could make health insurance more affordable to small companies hit by unaffordable rises in insurance rates.

“We would be doing this irrespective of the federal law,” Stephens said.

Stephens and the Senate supporter, Democratic Sen. Betty Boyd, said if Colorado’s health exchange is signed into law this year, the marketplace could be up and running by 2014 or 2015.