DENVER (AP) -- A state Senate committee on Thursday sided with doctors, insurers, business leaders and educators who testified in favor of extending health assistance to more needy Coloradans.
The committee voted 5-2 in favor of a bill that would expand Colorado's Medicaid program under the federal Affordable Care Act. Republican Sen. Larry Crowder of Alamosa joined Democratic members of the committee in endorsing the bill.
The bill would make adults earning up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level eligible for public health assistance. Currently, parents with Medicaid-eligible children earning at or below the poverty line are covered, along with single adults earning no more than 10 percent of the poverty level.
The federal government has committed to providing money for increased Medicaid coverage through 2017. Eventually, the state will have to pay 10 percent.
An estimated 53,000 more Coloradans would become eligible for Medicaid if the bill passes, according to Sen. Irene Aguilar, a Denver Democrat. Approximately 133,000 adults who are currently eligible but not covered because of insufficient state funds will have access to the program.
Medicaid expansion is a cornerstone of the federal health care law, though states can choose whether to opt in. Gov. John Hickenlooper has already expressed his support for the program, but Aguilar said it is important to put the program through the legislative process to ensure that any future changes would also have to be heard by the assembly.
Several senators raised questions about what would happen if the federal government cannot deliver on its promise to financially support the growth. Aguilar pointed out the state can always choose to back out of the expanded program in future years.
Sen. Ellen Roberts, a Republican from Durango, questioned whether giving people Medicaid coverage would cause them to be less cognizant of the cost of health care. But Russ Johnson, CEO of the San Luis Valley Regional Medical Center in Alamosa, said some form of insurance, including Medicaid, is always better than having no insurance.
"The issue with the uninsured is not that they are more connected to their care. The issue with the uninsured is that a single event will bankrupt them — a single car accident, a pregnancy that is complicated," Johnson said.
Representatives from the business community also testified in support of the bill, drawing criticism from Republican Sen. Kevin Lundberg of Berthoud.
"I can understand the business community trying to grasp onto some of the short-term advantages of a little more federal cash coming into the system, but quite candidly, I'm quite disappointed," he said.
Both Lundberg and Roberts expressed reservations about expanding a system they believe is flawed, but supporters of the bill said that for low-income individuals, Medicaid is better than nothing.
"In general, health care is dysfunctional, but I think actually Medicaid is a little bit of a shining light, at least in Colorado," Aguilar said.
Estimates of the cost to implement an expanded Medicaid program vary. The governor's office said it will cost $128 million over 10 years but that it has identified improvements to the health care system that can save $280 million over the same period.
The bill goes next to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Senate Bill 200: http://bit.ly/WcF0q5