State Legislative Update
Governor Polis signed HB20-1158 into law on Wednesday, which expands access to fertility treatments and in vitro fertilization by making changes to insurance carrier requirements. In signing the bill, the Governor released an accompanying letter explaining that while he signed HB20-1158, he would not sign any other insurance mandates this legislative session unless they are related to COVID-19. And in future years, he asked that bills proposing insurance mandates receive an actuarial review to determine whether or not the proposals would lower health care costs for Coloradans. Governor Polis sent a clear message to the General Assembly that if legislators should pursue legislation to change health insurance requirements, it must lower the cost to consumers and have the numbers to back it up, otherwise the bill could face a veto at the Governor’s desk. One week ago Governor Polis signed HB20-1275 that will allow members and veterans of US armed forces, and their children or spouses, to be eligible for in-state tuition at a community college. Until now, meeting residency requirements for in-state tuition presented a challenge for military families, who move frequently.
In a 4-3 vote, the Colorado Supreme Court issued a decision late Wednesday that the General Assembly may count the 120 days of the legislative session as any working 120 days, rather than a consecutive 120 days. The legislature now has much more flexibility to decide when it will return for work, and what legislation will remain on the table when they do reconvene. The Supreme Court decision found that the constitutional language around the 120 day session is vague and legislative rules, Joint Rule 23 and 44, work together to clarify the ambiguity. Joint Rule 23 provides that the legislative session will be 120 consecutive days. Joint Rule 44, established by the General Assembly after the H1N1 outbreak, had not been triggered until the recent legislative recess. Under Joint Rule 44, the General Assembly may count its session as 120 working days if there is a declared public health emergency and the Governor has activated the Colorado Emergency Operations Plan. The decision referenced that the General Assembly has citizen legislators and in times of emergency, flexibility is needed to return home. Though it remains uncertain when the legislature will return to work, when the chambers do come back it will be day 68 of the 120-day legislative calendar.
Both the legislative and executive branches plan to issue a revised revenue forecast when the Joint Budget Committee returns to set the budget, so that they are working off of the best possible estimates. They are also hoping to have detailed information about federal funds available for their use at that time. Colorado’s fiscal year ends on June 30, so the legislature will need to pass a School Finance Act and state budget prior to that date to ensure operations continue. There is talk of meeting remotely, but this option presents logistical challenges.
COVID 19 Update
In Colorado, of the more than 22,000 people tested for COVID, 4,174 have tested positive across 51 (of 64) counties and 806 people have been hospitalized. Colorado is currently conducting over 2,000 tests per day. The goal is to increase this to 3,500 tests per day for the next two weeks and ramp up to 5,000 tests per day in May. he state has capacity to test 10,000 people per day, but due to limitations on personal protective equipment, the actual testing numbers are lower. There have been 105 deaths, including El Paso County Sheriff’s Deputy Jeff Hopkins. Today Governor Polis announced extensions for state sales tax and property tax remittances. He announced a one time, 30 day extension for remitting state sales tax. State sales taxes that would be due on April 20 are now due on May 20 with no penalties or interest. He also extended the period of time that counties can extend property tax payments to May 1. Governor Polis asked all Coloradans to begin to wear non-medical cloth face masks anytime in public for essential functions like grocery shopping. He hoped that people will make it cool to wear masks and said that people can make them out of old t-shirts. Governor Polis asked essential businesses still operating to supply masks to their employees. He also relaxed requirements for fostering pets.
After last week’s flurry of public health orders requiring Coloradans to stay at home, the focus of the state response has shifted from social distancing to making sure that there is enough personal protective equipment, ventilators, and health care beds to prepare for a surge in COVID-19 patients. Governor Polis released a letter this week that he sent to Vice President Mike Pence, requesting FEMA and HHS to send Colorado millions of N95 masks, surgical gowns, face shields, pairs of gloves, and 10,000 ventilators. In the letter he wrote that the “COVID-19 death rate is rising faster than any other state right now” in Colorado. He has set ambitious goals to increase the number of patient beds by mid-April: free up 5,000 in-hospital beds for critically ill patients; set up ambulatory surgical centers and free standing emergency departments to handle patients who need respiratory therapy but won’t need ventilators; and set up 2,000 beds in large indoor spaces now vacant such as arenas or convention centers. The goal is to increase this health care capacity by April 18 and also set up 10,000 beds in hotels and dorms for quarantining people who have COVID-19 symptoms but don’t require medical care by mid-May. In addition to these measures to prepare the health care system, Governor Polis extended the special enrollment period to purchase individual health insurance through the state health care exchange. The enrollment period, set to expire today, was extended through the end April. Typically when someone loses their job they have a 60 day window to sign up, but anyone may sign up for health insurance during this special enrollment period. More than 5,500 people have signed up in the last two weeks of the special enrollment period.
While the state, along with most states in the country, faces a shortage of personal protective equipment and ventilators, Governor Polis has said that the social distancing measures currently in effect are slowing the time it takes for the number of cases in Colorado to double. Denver has extended the city’s stay at home order until April 30 and Governor Polis has indicated that the state order will likely be extended past April 11. Denver’s enforcement team has contacted several thousand businesses about staying open after the stay at home order went into effect and issued over 500 warnings. This week Denver enforcement officials cited several businesses, including Hobby Lobby, GameStop, and Appliance Factory Mattress Kingdom, for continuing to remain open after receiving warnings.
COVID-19 and the social distancing requirements force many aspects of our daily lives to move online. Students engage in remote learning, workplaces hold Zoom or GoTo meetings instead of meeting face to face, people chat over virtual happy hours, and health care is expanding telehealth services. Governor Polis issued two executive orders this week. One extends the statewide P-12 school closure to April 30 and cancels all extra-curriculars for the same time period. Many schools have transitioned to online learning, a big adjustment for teachers, students, and families alike. The Executive Order also temporarily suspends the requirements for schools to provide educator performance evaluations, allowing teachers to focus on teaching students in this new all-virtual environment. In the wake of the order several school districts have closed their doors to all in-person learning for the rest of the school year. Larimer County and Poudre school districts in northern Colorado along with 13 other metro area school districts have announced that the rest of the school year will be done remotely. Another Executive Order this week suspended a number of requirements in order to make it easier for people to access physical and mental health care through telehealth means. The Order required DOI and DORA to issue rules requiring carriers to allow health care professionals to provide medically necessary services using telehealth. It also will allow out of state licensed psychologists, marriage and family therapists, social workers, and counselors to practice without a Colorado license beyond the current 20 day limit.
In an election year, COVID-19 has presented challenges to the democratic process, and many elected and party officials have worked to ensure that 2020 elections continue safely. County assemblies are taking place remotely, the Democratic National Convention was postponed until August, and now this Friday, Governor Polis issued guidance on how local governments can best prepare for upcoming municipal elections. Across the state, municipalities will hold elections on April 7 for city council members and other local offices. He encouraged that municipalities use mail in ballots as much as possible, set up ballot drop off locations, enforce 6 foot social distancing guidelines for in person polling locations, and ask citizens to vote during off peak hours if they must vote in person.