by Lisa Cyriacks

A supporter of universal care and one of the founders of the Foundation for Universal Healthcare, Colorado State Senator Irene Aguilar (D-Denver) introduced a bill February 22 in the state legislature that would create the Colorado Health Care Cooperative. The cooperative would be a nonprofit benefits administrator and payer for health-care services, acting much like an insurance company, making payments directly to health-care providers.

If Aguilar’s bill moves forward, it would go to voters for approval at the soonest in November, and it would be implemented by 2016. But it faces huge hurdles. Two-thirds of each chamber of the legislature would have to approve it, and then a majority of voters would have to approve it.

The cooperative would rely on state taxing structures for collecting premiums.  The Cooperative would be established by an amendment to the Colorado Constitution as an independent business owned by Coloradans and run by Coloradans.

Currently, according to the Colorado Health Access Survey, about 830,000 Coloradans have no health insurance. The Colorado Trust funds the survey and the Colorado Health Institute conducts it.

Aguilar said universal care does not mean a government-run system.

Under Colorado Health Care Cooperative, Aguilar’s non-partisan bill, employers would pay a 6% payroll tax for each worker, while employees would pay a 3% share. Self-employed people and investors would pay a 9% tax on income and capital gains. Currently, businesses spend on average 11.8% on health insurance.

In exchange for those costs, all Coloradans who have lived in the state for at least one year by the beginning of 2016 would become part of a statewide health care cooperate and would get the opportunity to participate in a health plan that equals the most generous package of essential benefits under the Affordable Care Act.

Those plans would include primary and specialty care, hospitalizations, emergency visits, prescription coverage, mental health care, substance abuse treatment and some limited dental, vision and hearing benefits. In most cases, patients would not have co-payments or deductibles.

Patients would pick a network of providers and see any doctors who participate in their plan. Aguilar hopes the large providers would serve as “accountable care organizations,” competing against each other to provide patients with the best care.

In essence, with the cooperative Coloradans would form their own self-insurance pool to pay for the cost of medical care. A universal health-care system in Colorado could exist instead of the new federal health-care reform rules under the Affordable Care Act.

Non-profit insurance companies like Kaiser Permanente and Rocky Mountain Health Plans would likely continue as service providers under the new system. For-profit insurance companies would either start managing health care networks or would no longer exist, meaning Aguilar faces a massive battle from lobbyists. Groups representing businesses in Colorado have been waiting to see Aguilar’s final bill before deciding whether to support or oppose it.

A new economic study from University of Massachusetts Amherst economist Gerald Friedman estimates Colorado would spend about $5 billion less on health care in 2016 than if the state proceeded with changes under the Affordable Care Act. The savings would increase over time with an estimated $10 billion in savings in 2020 and $16.8 billion in 2024. A group supporting Aguilar’s bill, the Colorado Foundation for Universal Care, commissioned Friedman’s study with support from the Caring for Colorado Foundation.

Friedman’s study found that health care costs have tripled in Colorado and have grown from under 10% of the state’s economy in 1997 to over 13% in 2012. The rising cost of health care has prompted more employers to drop coverage as they’ve seen premiums rise, on average by about 8% each year over the last decade.

Friedman thinks that Colorado and other states considering similar universal care systems will become more attractive to employers. Besides bringing more stable health care costs to business owners, universal health care would cause some upheaval in Colorado’s job market, according to Friedman’s study. He estimated that 15,000 people would lose jobs in the first year. At the same time, he predicted that expansion of health care would create about 45,000 new jobs in 2016 and about 50,000 new jobs in 2024.

Co-operate Colorado is building a movement to support and promote the Colorado Health Care Cooperative.

In a statement made by Bill Semple, President of Co-operate Colorado, “The Cooperative will improve the delivery of health care. There will be  shift in focus from treating disease to maintaining health. Providers, dealing with one system, will be freed from the bureaucratic nightmares of multiple insurers as well as dealing with patients with no insurance. To learn more and give support, see: We can make history happen.”

Co-operate Colorado is funded by donations.