Bill, Interrupted

Season 1: Episode 36
May 14, 2020

Photo by Leslie Walker

The co-sponsor of Colorado’s recently withdrawn public option bill shares what it was like to go from being on the eve of major health reform to the brink of an economic and health care catastrophe.

Listen to the full episode below or scroll down for the transcript and more information.

Click here for more of our coronavirus coverage.

Senator Donovan

State Senator Kerry Donovan gives Tradeoffs host Dan Gorenstein a tour of the Senate chamber.

Kerry Donovan: I’m a huge dork about this building…like this is a pretty cool office.

Dan Gorenstein: It was March 2nd when we first met Colorado State Senator Kerry Donovan.

KD: The other thing I love about this capital the floor is marble from Marble, Colorado, which is my district.

DG: It was three days before a major press conference to introduce an ambitious and highly anticipated public option plan.

Donovan was giving us an after-hours statehouse tour that ended in the Senate chamber, where she hoped the bill would pass by mid-April.

KD: I always stay at the podium when people vote. I like standing there and like making eye contact with everyone.

DG: But that vote never happened.

Today, how one of the most anticipated state health reforms in years was defeated, not by the millions of dollars in out-of-state ads that everyone worried about…

…but by the coronavirus.

From the Annenberg Studio at the University of Pennsylvania, I’m Dan Gorenstein, and this is Tradeoffs.

DG: Kerry Donovan still remembers the scene. More than a dozen people standing behind her…plenty of hospital lobbyists in the crowd…and the lights.

KD: I’ll say I haven’t seen that many television cameras at a bill kick off that I’ve been a part of.

News Clip: Now to the Capitol where a new state health insurance option was unveiled.

Press Conference: Good afternoon everyone, what a crowd we’ve assembled here today. My name is Kerry Donovan and I’m the State Senator for Senate District 5, which represents 7 counties that hug the continental divide of the western slope and the high country of Colorado and who have been at the epicenter of the health care cost debate in Colorado for years.

DG: Donovan’s bill would require health insurance companies to sell a public plan that capped hospital payments and promised to lower premiums.

This state option would initially apply to the 300,000 Coloradans who buy insurance on the individual market.

Press Conference: We must lower the cost of health care and we must make health care and consumer choice a priority of the General Assembly.

DG: Momentum…check

Enthusiasm…check

And then…brick wall.

KD: In the span of just a few days, we went through the enormous high of introducing a bill and adrenaline rush and anticipation of its first public hearing, you know, where everyone starts to really lay their cards on the table. And then, you know,  the coronavirus kind of arrived on our doorstep at the same time we were presenting a bill talking about access to health care.

DG: Was there any part of you that was thinking, damn, this timing is terrible?

KD: I didn’t have a moment of thought of, oh, man, this is really screwing up my plans. Like, there was just no there was no space for indecision. And I, in those immediate days, was so involved with the challenges and problems that my district that was going through that I didn’t really have time to go through my list of bills and, like, start triaging them or think about their future, because the problems were so acute.

DG: Donovan represents 7 counties out in the western part of the state – bigger than all of New Jersey…and home to some of the world’s finest ski towns. The economic hit came fast.

KD: It felt so real so quickly. Eagle County, my home county, was approaching 50 percent unemployment. We’re at the height of ski season. Restaurants…they’d call up and say, hey, I think we got to shut our doors. Do you know who I can donate all this food to? Kerry, should I shut down my business?

It was incredible that so many people called me thinking I could help, but it was also heartbreaking that a lot of the times it was just, you know, me saying, wow, I haven’t even heard that problem yet. Let me get back to you.

DG: And while in some ways the lives of your friends and family and constituents are imploding out there in western Colorado. It’s pretty hard to be focused and thinking about legislation, no matter how important the legislation might be with the public option.

KD: Yeah…I mean, you know, a bill is a bill. But there would be these kind of ,you know, something that would like snap me back into the legislative session. One of the things we started saying is you needed a doctor’s note to get tested. And you think that everyone has a doctor that they can call  but out here, that created another hurdle, because people don’t access primary care because their deductibles are so high or they don’t have health care. You know, like, God damn it. Like here’s another example of why you like health care just doesn’t work.

DG: With so many still unable to access the care they need, some hoped the public option would be revived when lawmakers returned to Denver.

But that hope came to a final, screeching halt just last week as Donovan and her cosponsors pulled the bill.

KD: There’s been a lot of discussion of what are we gonna do when we return to work, which will happen in the coming weeks? There’s a number of bills that we have to do by our Constitution, including presenting a balanced budget, which right now is looking like we need to cut about four billion dollars out of our budget. And then we also want to do some bills that address COVID-19.

DG: The reality is the public option, with its cap on provider payments, had put a bullseye on the backs of the state’s largest hospitals.

There was a lot of pent up frustration with Colorado’s health care prices and hospital profits, both of which top most national charts.

Democrats in the state felt like there was a real mandate to take action and stand up to what some saw as the real driver behind rising health care costs.

DG: From a political perspective, you know, you guys were on a brink of this kind of showdown with the big hospitals, calling them out for their prices and spending priorities. Has the crisis changed how you fundamentally view the hospitals either personally or as a policymaker?

KD: So under no circumstances did I run the public option to punish hospitals. I don’t dislike hospitals nor the people that work at them. We were just asking hospitals to be part of the solution because their end of year earnings certainly would illustrate that they were capable of this. One of the larger hospitals in Denver announced bonuses for their C suite while just, you know, the day previous they had asked their nurses and kind of frontline staff to take a pay cut. I mean. Right? So the behaviors haven’t changed.

DG: Donovan expects big hospitals to continue to drive high health care costs. But they’re also facing real challenges in the midst of this pandemic…and that makes it politically and economically difficult to move a bill that those hospitals are dead set against.

Donovan, though, doesn’t expect the public option to be dead for long.

More than 400,000 Coloradans have filed for unemployment…tens of thousands have lost the insurance they had through work. The need for affordable coverage is more important now than it was even ten weeks ago.

I’m Dan Gorenstein, and this is Tradeoffs.

Episode Resources

Select Resources on the Colorado Affordable Health Care Option:

Colorado Affordable Health Care Option (HB20-1349)

Final Report For Colorado’s Health Insurance Option (Colorado Department of Health Care Policy & Financing and the Division of Insurance, 2020)

Colorado Cost Shift Analysis (Colorado Department of Health Care Policy & Financing, 2020)

$10,000-a-day fines and other things to know about Colorado’s new public health insurance option bill (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun, 3/5/2020)

Episode Credits

Guests:

Kerry Donovan, Colorado State Senator

The Tradeoffs theme song was composed by Ty Citerman, with additional music this episode from Blue Dot Sessions.

Additional thanks to:

Buzzy Neusteter and Judy Perrill, Kaia, Katy Neusteter, the Tradeoffs Advisory Board…

…and our stellar staff!