A fight is brewing in Colorado over a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would institute a single-payer health-care system. The major assault on the controversial ballot initiative, which goes to voters in November, is coming not from Colorado Republicans who oppose the plan but from Governor John Hickenlooper and other Democratic leaders.
Colorado’s Amendment 69 would raise $25 billion—nearly equal to the state’s 2015 budget—through a 7 percent payroll tax on employers, a 3 percent tax on employees’ gross pay, and a 10 percent tax on self-employed workers’ net income to fund “ColoradoCare.” The plan would automatically cover all residents, including illegal immigrants and the unemployed, allow the state to negotiate lower prices on drugs and medical equipment, and create an elected board to set rates for health-care providers. Three organizations—Colorado Foundation for Universal Health Care, Co-operate Colorado, and ColoradoCareYes—joined forces to research, design, and launch the successful signature-gathering campaign.
Despite the national Democratic Party’s long-held goal of instituting some form of universal health care, top Colorado Democrats have put political considerations ahead of the ambitious push for a single-payer framework. Some health-care providers believe the loss of the ability to set their own rates would deprive them of revenues.
Both Hickenlooper and U.S. Senator Michael Bennet have received sizable campaign contributions from health-care companies that stand to lose out if Amendment 69 passes. Hickenlooper has labeled the initiative “premature” and suggested that reforms that the state has already launched, such as instituting a review and approval process for insurance premium hikes and expanding Medicaid eligibility, need more time to “bear fruit.”
In a January meeting with the Colorado Forum—described as “one of the most powerful political lobbies in the state”—Hickenlooper told the assembled business leaders and political operatives that he doesn’t believe “there’s any chance that [the measure] will pass.” He noted that a “couple large health care-related companies that are looking at moving their headquarters” to Colorado “paused” when they heard about the measure.
Bennet also had a lukewarm reaction. “Michael does not think that single payer is the right approach to solving our health care problems,” the senator’s spokesman told the Colorado Independent, a local news outlet. He explained that Bennet believes that full funding for the measure would require a large tax increase. Moreover, the initiative would be enshrined in the state constitution, making it difficult to change.
However, Bennet has supported expanded public health-care options in the past, calling health care “a life and death issue” and decrying the “scare tactics” of opponents.
During the 2014 campaign cycle, the health-care sector was one of Hickenlooper’s top 10 industry sources for campaign cash, with health insurance companies like Cigna Corporation and Wellpoint, among others, contributing $346,568.
Since 2014, Wellpoint has changed its name to Anthem and is currently pursuing a merger with Cigna, which would transform the company into the country’s largest health insurer. Cigna and Anthem are longtime donors to the Democratic Governors Association, giving $2 million to the organization since 2009. In 2014, the DGA was the second highest source of political donations to Colorado candidates. More than $6 million went to a pro-Hickenlooper PAC and another $3.3 million to TV advertising.
For the past two years, the health-care industry, along with the finance, insurance, and real estate sectors, have been the two largest sources of funding for Bennet’s political action committee, providing $309,500 and $367,850, respectively. Amgen, a drug manufacturer, donated $34,000, while lobbyists employed by firms hired by Amgen raised a total of $81,200 for Bennet. Steptoe & Johnson, a lobbying firm working with the Council of Insurance Agents and Brokers (CIAB), which is trying to defeat Amendment 69, donated $28,500. Both are among Bennett’s top 20 contributors.
Bennet has also served as the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Under his tenure the DSCC raised almost three times as much bundled lobbyist money as its Republican counterpart. Bennet has said that he would continue to personally accept such bundled lobbyist contributions even though he authored federal legislation to rein them in. During his current re-election campaign, Bennet has outraised his nearest opponent by nearly ten to one.
“Superlobbyist” Tony Podesta continues to play a shadowy role in the ColoradoCare fight. Podesta, a major fundraiser for Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton and the brother of John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman, is the founder and chairman of the Podesta Group, a D.C.-based lobbying firm. The Podesta Group counts Amgen as one of its biggest clients. Another major Bennet contributor, DaVita Healthcare Partners, is also a Podesta client.