May 5, 2023 - Politics

Capitol Pulse: Colorado hospitals targeted in health care debate

Illustration of a stack of money wrapped up in a terms and conditions document.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

💬 Capitol Pulse is a weekly feature to catch up quick on what's happening at the Legislature.

Three years ago, in the crush of the pandemic, hospitals and drugmakers were the saviors and drew praise from Colorado's elected leaders.

Yes, but: Now, with those memories fading, hospitals and prescription drug companies are the adversaries as policymakers look to curtail rising health care costs in the private market.

Why it matters: The reversal of fortunes is one of the defining battles at the Colorado Capitol, one persisting into this session's final days.

State of play: Led by Gov. Jared Polis, Democrats advanced three major bills designed to force hospitals to lower costs. They are meant to:

  1. Reduce unexpected charges by prohibiting facility fees on preventive care and requiring more disclosures before these often-unknown charges are added to appointments.
  2. Add new requirements to force hospitals to make data public about their charges and expenditures.
  3. Make nonprofit hospitals justify their tax-exempt status by demonstrating their community benefit with input from the public.

Of note: The first two bills were still pending in the Legislature ahead of Monday's adjournment deadline, and the third awaits the governor's signature.

What they're saying: "We want to make sure we address all aspects of high health care costs," Polis told Axios Denver earlier this session. "It's pharmaceuticals, hospitals, insurers, it's every driver of cost."

Reality check: The measure to curtail facility fees — part of a national effort — was pared significantly. It no longer covers most visits, and exempts emergency rooms and rural hospitals and clinics.

The other side: Jeff Tieman, president and CEO of the Colorado Hospital Association, tells us it's unfair to target his members because they are "one dimension of a much broader system."

Zoom in: Prescription drug prices are targeted in other legislation, including a bill that expands a 2021 law to allow a state board to set caps on more products. A second bill caps the cost of EpiPens at $60. Both are still pending.

What to watch: Two of the most controversial measures move Colorado toward a universal health care system.

  • The Legislature recently approved a bill to prioritize the government-managed Colorado Option plan on the health care exchange and added mechanisms that allow the state to impose tougher profit limits on insurers.
  • A related bill would mandate a $300,000 study about a single-payer system, just years after a ballot measure on the topic failed.
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