Lawmakers reach deal 
on hospitals,

Agreement on shaky ground but may give crucial funding

DENVER — After weeks of on-again, off-again negotiations, lawmakers said Thursday they had a deal on a bill that would prevent deep cuts to rural hospitals and set aside money to fund road and bridge projects.

While the deal is as fragile as Humpty Dumpty on his wall, because it still has to face the rest of a skeptical Colorado Legislature, lawmakers working on it have a shaky confidence that they can get the measure — SB267 — through with only four days left in the 2017 session. By law, the session must end by Wednesday.

Days ago, the four principal lawmakers on the bill — Sens. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, and Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, and House Majority Leader KC Becker, D-Boulder, and Rep. Jon Becker, R-Fort Morgan — said they had agreed to the major points of the bill. They are:

■  Issuing $1.8 billion in bonds primarily to fund transportation projects, 25 percent of which would go to rural communities, to be paid off from $150 million a year over the next two decades in sales, income and gas taxes.

■  Turning the state’s hospital provider fee program, which is paid directly to hospitals to fund health care for the poor, into a standalone government business. Making the fee program its own enterprise, allowed for under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, means it would no longer be counted under mandated revenue caps. Doing so frees up about $550 million from the state’s budget, although another part of the deal lowers the TABOR revenue cap by $200 million, cutting into that amount.

■  Along with that fee program, the deal also calls for setting a 3 percent cap on how much the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy & Financing can spend on administering the provider fee enterprise.

■  Dedicating $120 million a year for transportation maintenance, and setting aside some capital development money for colleges and universities.

The agreement also would increase Medicaid co-pays on prescription drugs and outpatient care, allow for a one-time $30 million payment to K-12 schools, and create a tax credit on business personal property taxes on assets valued at $18,000 or less.

“We were trying to ease the pain on small business,” Jon Becker said in explaining why the business property tax was part of the negotiations. “This is a thoughtful start.”

The deal also calls for raising the marijuana excise tax to the maximum 15 percent, which voters approved when they passed a ballot measure in 2013.

At one point, Republicans wanted to increase the co-payments Medicaid patients pay for hospital stays, but Democrats opposed that idea. Instead, they agreed to doubling to $2 the co-payments Medicaid patients pay for prescription drugs, and doing the same for outpatient treatments, raising that to $4.

“It’s a huge win for hospitals,” KC Becker said. “One thing that was important to the Republicans was to have the TABOR cap lowered. One thing that was important for us was to have room under the TABOR cap so that, as Colorado has had this booming economy, it means we can take advantage of that by putting money into higher ed and K-12. So, it meets both of our goals.”

If the bill doesn’t go through, hospitals stand to lose about $264 million in state funds — actually $528 million, including the federal match — which could jeopardize numerous rural hospitals, many of which say they could close as a result.

Both sides said they were not smiling widely about the deal because they had to give up so much, but were motivated to continue negotiations because the stakes were so high.

“We were really resistant to a lot of it,” KC Becker said.

“We both love and hate pieces of this,” Jon Becker added. “The cap part was the hardest part for us ... but we understood that we have to work with both sides in order to find an agreement. I thought this agreement was very well thought out, and gives each of us pieces that we needed to bring everybody to the table.”

The bill is expected to face the Senate Appropriations Committee later today, and could be debated on the Senate floor as early as this afternoon. If it survives that, it could be up for a final Senate vote on Monday.

The bill then would face at least two House committees and two floor votes before it can head to the governor’s desk by Wednesday’s closing bell.


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