DENVER – State senators hammered out a budget for the upcoming fiscal year with surprising twists that include funding an audit of Connect for Health Colorado and assembling a firefighting aerial fleet to thwart wildfires from ravaging the state.
Just when it looked like the health exchange performance audit was dead after its defeat by a Senate committee last month, it was resurrected Thursday as a budget amendment by Sen. Kevin Lundberg (R-Berthoud) and passed on a bipartisan vote.
“I think we have a moral obligation to look at this,” said Lundberg, who serves on the legislative oversight committee for the exchange. “There are more questions than there are answers.”
Lundberg told the Senate that his inquiries have gotten responses that are “very carefully crafted” and evasive. The state auditor should get the facts through a performance audit – not just a review of financial statements, he said.
Lundberg’s request for the $175,000 audit met with resistance from Sen. Irene Aguilar (D-Denver), a physician who chairs the exchange oversight committee. Aguilar championed the exchange and Connect for Health Colorado CEO Patty Fontneau.
The exchange is “not an entity of the state” and cannot be fully reviewed by the state auditor without being authorized by legislation signed into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper, Aguilar said.
Lundberg said that the House passed the legislation last month with bipartisan support – the lone “no” vote was cast by Democrat Rep. Sue Schafer of Wheat Ridge.
When the bill advanced to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, it was killed by four Democrats: Sens. Aguilar, Linda Newell of Littleton, John Kefalas of Fort Collins and Jeanne Nicholson of Black Hawk.
The Connect for Colorado Health exchange has spent about 60 percent of $177 million in federal grants since it was created by the legislature in 2010, and it is slated to receive $39 million in funds from Colorado taxpayers.
“The cost of our exchange is significantly lower than the federal exchange,” said Aguilar.
However, Fontneau asked the exchange board of directors last month to hike fees by 21 percent to pay for operations. The board denied the request and advised her to cut expenses.
The exchange has struggled to overcome online computer enrollment problems, failure to meet enrollment projections and questions over security background checks. A year after being hired as a director for the exchange in March 2013, Christa Ann McClure resigned after she was indicted on charges of fraud and embezzlement in Montana.
“We have a situation that has not been forthcoming,” said Lundberg. “The Senate needs to weigh in on this.”
The Senate also approved $21 million to establish the firefighting air corps that was proposed by Sen. Steve King (R-Grand Junction) and Senate President Morgan Carroll (D-Aurora).
The legislation will be fine-tuned to follow guidelines in a report to be presented by Paul Cooke, director of the Colorado Division of Fire.
King said the state spent $43 million on firefighting efforts last year, and that the $21 million to create a state air corps is worth the price tag to save lives, protect property and natural resources, and conserve water.
“Wildfires (are) a clear and present danger to the health and safety of Colorado citizens,” said King. “Wildfires endanger our economy, our infrastructure, our tourism, our agriculture and our quality of life.”
“It’s not (a question of) if we have another catastrophic wildfire – it’s when. And how many, how bad, how damaging?” said Carroll.
Cooke’s report, which was generated from a bill that King authored last year, recommended several different types of aircraft that would assess fires and release suppression resources within an hour. Preferable is to drop retardant on a fire within 20 minutes, which is the high bar set by California’s firefighting fleet.
After the Senate passes the budget Friday, known as the Long Bill, it will be sent back to the House for approval or to reconcile differences.