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Governor Polis Takes Aim at 'Outrageous' Cost of Health Care

There’s a new sheriff in town, and he brought a posse.

Gov. Jared Polis left little doubt Thursday about his top priority in health care: lowering costs for consumers.

In his first State of the State address, he discussed health care in terms of dollars and cents. And he underscored the point by assembling a health cabinet of consumer advocates.

Polis told legislators the election gave his administration a mandate to lower “the outrageous cost of health care.” Later, he said Coloradans are “fed up of getting ripped off on health care costs.”

It’s a change in both substance and tone from his predecessor, John Hickenlooper, who focused on expanding coverage and improving behavioral health care. Hickenlooper prided himself on being a consensus-builder, while Polis voiced fighting words in his third day on the job.

The Polis administration has already put hospitals and the prescription drug industry on notice. Polis retained Hickenlooper’s director of Health Care Policy and Financing, Kim Bimestefer, who has butted heads with hospitals and drug companies over the prices they charge. And he hired Elisabeth Arenales — probably the state’s leading consumer health advocate — to be his health policy adviser.

If those messages weren’t clear enough, Polis on Thursday announced the creation of the Office of Saving People Money on Health Care.

The name elicited chuckles from legislators.

“We don’t want to give this office a bureaucratic or fancy name to make it sound important. We want to give it a simple name, because it is important,” Polis said.

Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera will lead the new office. Primavera is another strong consumer health advocate who served four terms in the legislature and survived multiple bouts with cancer.

“The Office of Saving People Money on Health Care will form the beating heart of our efforts to reduce patient costs for hospital stays and expenses, improve price transparency, lower the cost of prescription drugs, make health care more affordable, and make market forces work for us rather than against us,” Polis said.

He touted a reinsurance plan to bring down high insurance prices on the individual market. Legislators haven’t yet introduced a bill on the topic, but one is in the works.

Polis also pledged to take on the opioid epidemic through more prevention and treatment, although he did not mention specific bills he would support.

The State of the State address showed another way Polis differs from Hickenlooper: He’s a policy wonk. Hickenlooper rarely mentioned specific policies he backed in his annual addresses. Polis, in contrast, set out a jam-packed agenda for the legislature.

Several items on Polis’ list relate to health:

  • Kindergarten. Full-day kindergarten for all Colorado kids will be Polis’ top priority, he said. Evidence shows that early childhood education is a proven way to increase high school graduation rates and improve well-being later in life.
  • High-speed internet. Polis wants to extend broadband all over rural Colorado. The technology is key to making telehealth possible.
  • Climate change. “Climate change is a scientific reality. It’s real,” Polis said. He wants Colorado to greatly expand its use of renewable energy.
  • Paid family leave. Polis endorsed this idea, which Democrats have not been able to pass in recent years while the Senate was under Republican control. Polis said he will submit a new budget to legislators next week that includes paid family leave for state employees.

Polis made clear he hasn’t forgotten his goal of universal health coverage.

“Our ultimate objective is to bring universal, high-quality, affordable care to every Colorado family. We know that won’t happen overnight, but the work we will do together in this legislative session will put us on the right path and bring us closer to our goal,” he said.

The takeaway: Coloradans should get ready for an activist governor who engages in the details of policy. And when it comes to health, cutting prices matters most to him.

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