By Marianne Goodland
State Capitol Correspondent
It will be a busy week ahead for the lawmakers from northeastern Colorado, with the first full week of committee hearings, including four bills sponsored by Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling and Rep. Rod Pelton, R-Cheyenne Wells.
But whether all four would make it out of their assigned committees is debatable, given where those bills have been assigned.
The Senate State, Veterans & Military Affairs Committee reviewed two of Sonnenberg’s bills on Tuesday, Feb. 1. (As of press time, the bills had not gone through the committee hearing.)
With Democrats now in charge of both chambers for the fourth year in a row, they’ve used the State Affairs committees in both the House and Senate as a place to send bills they don’t want to see succeed.
Senate Bill 38 is Sonnenberg’s attempt to allow hospital patients to see the billing for the Hospital Provider Fee, a measure that levies a fee (Sonnenberg and other conservatives call it a tax) charged on each hospital patient stay per day.
The provider fee has been in state law since 2009, intended to help provide health care coverage for uninsured patients who had been tapping emergency rooms for their non-emergency care. The fee, which according to the Colorado Department of Healthcare Policy and Financing, is charged on daily occupied beds and outpatient services, and is not to exceed six percent of net patient revenues. Those dollars then matched with federal dollars and redistributed to hospitals to cover the cost of uncompensated care (that’s the uninsured) and to help cover the cost of Medicaid and the Child Health Plan Plus (known as CHP+) which covers health care for low-income pregnant women and children who don’t qualify for Medicaid.
In 2017, Sonnenberg was among a quartet of bipartisan lawmakers who sponsored a bill, known as Sustainability of Rural Colorado, that converted the provider fee to an enterprise, a type of state-run business. The fee was generating some $500 million per year, and since it was subject to revenue limits under TABOR, the fee would trigger a TABOR refund, paid for with general fund revenues (that’s income and sales taxes).
However, Coloradans have never seen just how much of their hospital bills come from the fee; the law has never allowed hospitals to show it.
That’s what Sonnenberg hopes to accomplish with SB 38: to allow hospitals to show the provider fee on their bills. SB 38 is viewed as a transparency measure.
Lawmakers have been eager to pass bills in the last few years increasing transparency of hospital billing, with a 2019 law that eliminated “surprise” billing. That’s when a patient unknowingly receives services from an out-of-network health care provider. That’s particularly common in emergency room visits, according to the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative.
A 2018 law requires hospitals to post the prices that self-pay patients would pay for the 50 most common treatments for diagnosed illnesses.
Sonnenberg’s second bill on Feb. 2 deals with hospitals, too. SB 53, with Pelton as the House sponsor, would require that when someone is admitted to a hospital or a nursing home, that they be allowed at least one visitor of their choosing during that stay.
It’s his second try on the legislation; a 2021 effort drew objections from the state health department as well as nursing homes. Neither has registered an objection to the 2022 version. SB 53 is opposed by the Colorado Hospital Association but supported by Mental Health Colorado.
Sonnenberg is likely to have better luck on Feb. 2 with a bill that would expand the focus of the interim water resources review committee. Senate Bill 30 would add agriculture to its responsibilities and change the committee’s name to the Water Resources and Agricultural Review Committee.
During 2021, the committee met three times and took a field trip to the Colorado Water Congress summer conference in August. Much of its work has traditionally dealt with agricultural issues tied to water, such as on water conservation in agriculture and alternative transfer methods, which intend to allow farmers to fallow their land to save water and avoid buy-and-dry.
The bill states that ag producers and workers are stewards of Colorado’s surface and groundwater resources, and that ag and water resource issues are closely intertwined. Expanding the committee’s charge to include agriculture would be beneficial to the committee’s work in safeguarding Colorado’s water supply, the bill said.
Pelton’s House Bill 1013, on microgrids, intends to set up a grant program to develop microgrids that would help avoid power disruptions in rural communities.
So what’s a microgrid? According to the US Department of Energy, a microgrid is a “local energy grid with control capability, which means it can disconnect from the traditional grid and operate autonomously.” Today’s microgrids are increasingly designed with a combination of solar plus battery storage.
HB 1013, co-sponsored by Rep. Marc Snyder, D-Manitou Springs, will be heard by the House Energy & Environment Committee on Feb. 2. The bill has the support of Colorado Farm Bureau.
Finally, if you’ve ever wanted to give lawmakers a piece of your mind on the state budget, here’s your chance. The Joint Budget Committee is holding a public hearing on the 2022-23 state budget, with public testimony invited. The hearing is at 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 2, and witnesses can submit written testimony or testify remotely. You must sign up in advance. To sign up, go to the General Assembly’s website and under “committees” at the top, you’ll find the link to “public testimony options.”