DENVER - Legislators started moving Thursday on a $1 billion expansion of health care for the poor, a key part of President Barack Obama's 2010 health care bill.
While much of the state is focused on gun violence bills, Medicaid expansion is arguably the most expensive and consequential decision the Legislature will make this year.
"Expanding Medicaid in the state of Colorado can save up to 600 lives every year," said Sen. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, who is sponsoring Senate Bill 200.
Her bill would extend Medicaid to adults making up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level. That's $15,282 for a single person or $31,322 for a family of four. Colorado already covers children up to that level, but not most adults.
Under the Affordable Care Act, championed by Obama, the federal government will pay for the expansion for three years, but by 2020, Colorado would have to pick up a tenth of the cost.
An existing tax on hospitals would be used to pay for Colorado's share of the expansion if the bill passes.
The reliance on federal spending worried Republicans.
"There is no free money. That's my concern," said Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, during SB 200's first hearing in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.
Colorado uses the hospital tax to draw even more matching funds from the federal government, but Roberts said the second-ranking Democrat in the U.S. Senate, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, has called that tactic a charade.
"It sends a pretty strong message to me that as they're discussing things in Washington about how to cut things, this is certainly high on the list," Roberts said.
The cost, mostly funded by the federal government, is expected to reach $1.2 billion by 2015.
But Aguilar said that getting health coverage to more people will expand the economy, add jobs in the health care business and reduce health care costs in the long-run by providing cheaper preventative care instead of expansive emergency care.
Her bill passed its first hearing 5-2 and now goes to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Supporters turned to Tish Barber, a mother from Olathe, to make their case as the first witness for the bill.
Barber's three boys have Medicaid coverage, but neither she nor her husband is insured, and they haven't been to the doctor for a physical since high school. It feels irresponsible to be uninsured, she said, but they can't afford a private insurance policy on her husband's salary at Big O Tires.
"If we ever seriously got sick, I don't know how we would pay for it," Barber said.
Gov. John Hickenlooper announced before the Legislature's yearly session began that he wants to take up the federal government on its offer to pay for most of the expansion.
Despite the politics of Obamacare, Hickenlooper has been joined in his decision to embrace a bigger Medicaid program by high-profile Republican governors in New Jersey, Florida and Arizona.