Polis focuses on health care in State of the State address

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DENVER — Colorado Gov. Jared Polis urged lawmakers Thursday to join him in combatting income inequality in a state where an economic boom has left too many behind, and he placed a particular emphasis on healthcare costs as crucial to that fight.

Delivering his second State of the State address to a Legislature in the control of fellow Democrats, Polis threw his weight behind a drive to create a state-administered public option for health insurance.

The idea is to generate more competition in a market where many rural residents have few options, even with the state health insurance exchange created under the Affordable Care Act.

“When you have more choices as a consumer, insurance companies have to compete for your business, which means lower prices,” Polis said.

He challenged a hospital industry that is lobbying against a public option long before any tangible legislation has been introduced.

Denver metropolitan-area hospitals, Polis claimed, reap some of the nation’s highest profit margins — and are spending those dollars “from overcharging patients to run ads against legislation that would save families money.

“We won’t let that work,” he vowed.

Full text: Read the State of the State address

The four-month legislative session began Wednesday. The public option effort builds on a cost-reducing framework created last year that includes a reinsurance program designed to lower private insurance rates, hospital price transparency, pending efforts to import cheaper prescription drugs from abroad and consumer protections against surprise out-of-network medical bills.

Polis declared his support for Democratic lawmakers who are reviving an effort to institute a prescription drug price transparency plan . Last year's efforts met intense opposition from the U.S. pharmaceutical industry and Colorado's largest business chambers. Their lead argument was a threat to the industry's trade secrets they need to stay competitive.

He also committed to creating a paid family medical leave plan that doesn't strain the state's fiscal resources. Colorado business chambers fended off efforts to create a paid family leave program last year, questioning the cost to employers and workers and the fiscal soundness of the proposal. Democratic lawmakers intend to pursue a plan this year. Preliminary cost estimates surpass $2 billion.

Polis committed to achieving universal preschool access by the end of his first term, building upon his efforts to make kindergarten accessible to all last year. He’s long maintained early education investment is crucial to the state’s prosperity.

For college students, Polis backed a legislative proposal to provide partial student loan debt relief for new graduates under certain conditions.

A successful tech entrepreneur and former U.S. congressman, Polis renewed his commitment to lowering corporate and personal income taxes. He said a study group will deliver proposals by the end of his first term.

Democrats are pursuing legislation to strengthen air and water pollution monitoring and increase penalties against violators. It's a continuation of Polis' ambitious climate and renewable energy agenda that calls for a drastic reduction in Colorado greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decades.

He stressed Thursday that the private sector is driving change on renewable energy. He applauded Thursday’s announcement by Tri-State Generation, an electric utility, that it will replace coal power plants in Colorado and New Mexico with renewable power sources by 2030. He also backed efforts to allow local municipalities to contract their own renewable energy sources.

Denver police and and state patrol officers detained several protesters who tried to disrupt the proceedings inside the Capitol by chanting anti-fracking slogans. Polis' administration has placed new regulations on, but not banned, Colorado's multibillion-dollar hydraulic fracturing industry.

Citing climate change, Polis, a science fiction fan, closed with a quote from “Lord of the Rings” protagonist Gandalf when Frodo, the main character, complains of having to save the world.

Gandalf responded “with a charge that applies to us here in this chamber today,” Polis said: "All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.’”

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