Colorado’s Hickenlooper vows to defend health care access

"I think most of us would agree that the last thing we would want is Congress making all of our decisions around health care," said Hickenlooper, who has increasingly invoked a states' rights argument — one often used by Republicans on such issues as gun rights — to defend Colorado's health care and marijuana markets.

DENVER | Colorado’s health care exchange isn’t going anywhere soon.

That’s the word from Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who told the state’s 100 lawmakers in his annual state of the state address Thursday that he will resist any attempt to roll back the federal health care law that requires everyone to get health insurance.

“I think most of us would agree that the last thing we would want is Congress making all of our decisions around health care,” said Hickenlooper, who has increasingly invoked a states’ rights argument — one often used by Republicans on such issues as gun rights — to defend Colorado’s health care and marijuana markets.

John Hickenlooper, Crisanta Duran, Kevin Grantham

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper delivers his annual State of the State address to lawmakers and guests, inside the state legislature, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017, in Denver. Behind him are, left to right, new House Speaker Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, and new Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Canon City. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

John Hickenlooper

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper applauds members of the audience as he delivers his annual State of the State address to lawmakers and guests, inside the state legislature, in Denver, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017. Hickenlooper set his priorities on roads and housing, health care and pot regulation when he addressed the just-convened 2017 Legislature. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

John Hickenlooper

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper delivers his annual State of the State address to lawmakers and guests, inside the state legislature, in Denver, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017. Hickenlooper set his priorities on roads and housing, health care and pot regulation when he addressed the just-convened 2017 Legislature. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

John Hickenlooper

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper delivers his annual State of the State address to lawmakers and guests, inside the state legislature, in Denver, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017. Hickenlooper set his priorities on roads and housing, health care and pot regulation when he addressed the just-convened 2017 Legislature. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

John Hickenlooper, Clement Frost

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, right, shakes hands with Clement Frost, the Chairman of the Southern Ute Tribal Council, as he arrives to deliver his annual State of the State address to lawmakers and guests, inside the state legislature, in Denver, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017. Hickenlooper set his priorities on roads and housing, health care and pot regulation when he addressed the just-convened 2017 Legislature. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

But, Hickenlooper added, “If changes are inevitable, I will fight for a replacement plan that protects the people who are covered now and doesn’t take us backward.”

Republicans in Congress are working to defund the Affordable Care Act enacted under President Barack Obama without having drafted a replacement. In Colorado, Republicans who control the state Senate introduced a bill this week to disband Colorado’s health insurance exchange by 2019.

Senate Republican Leader Chris Holbert of Parker told reporters after the speech that Colorado shouldn’t maintain its health care system despite national changes.

“We need to watch to see what Congress does, about whether they repeal or replace the Affordable Care Act,” Holbert said.

Republicans’ health care bill has no chance in the Democrat-led House.

Still, Hickenlooper noted, “we’ll soon have a new president, and it is clear that the new administration and Congress seek a different relationship between the federal government and the states.”

More than 200,000 Coloradans depend on the state exchange and 1 in 5 residents is covered by Medicaid, whose costs have expanded drastically.

But there are substantial inequities. Insurers have fled rural regions; West Slope residents have just one, and they pay some of the highest premiums in the nation.

Hickenlooper embraced a shared commitment by Democrats and Republicans to spend more for roads and promote housing construction in the rapidly-growing state. He didn’t provide specifics on how to tackle $9 billion worth of road improvements over the next decade, but he did say the general fund was off-limits.

“Voters are tired of us kicking the can down the road, because they know it’s going to land in a pothole,” Hickenlooper said.

The governor asked lawmakers to find a way to fund public education without sacrificing other core government services. K-12 schools funding depends on the ups and downs of often-conflicting constitutional spending rules, and it competes each year with prisons, health care and transportation for funding.

Hickenlooper has proposed a $28.5 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. It calls on lawmakers to eliminate a $500 million deficit.

The governor also:

—Said he is creating an office dedicated to get high-speed internet to all of Colorado by 2020. “Fiber optic cables are today’s power lines for farmers, ranchers and rural small businesses,” he said.

—Called for $6 million to help local police and prosecutors find illegal marijuana grows and prosecute those responsible. Loopholes in home grow and medical caregiver laws have allowed a black market to flourish, Hickenlooper said.