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Polis creates new health care office, punts questions on DPS teachers strike

The Colorado governor focused solely on the creation of his new health care office, sidestepping any questions about the looming teachers strike.

DENVER — Gov. Jared Polis signed an executive order Wednesday creating the "Office of Saving People Money on Health Care."

And he did so in an office appointed in stark contrast to its previous occupant.

Gone from the governor's office was the large conference table that remained there during John Hickenlooper's tenure -- the room is now more open. Polis, however, wasn't quite as open with reporters when asked about the recent Denver Public Schools teachers strike.

"We are talking health care today," Polis told a reporter during a press conference in response to a question about the strike - which hasn't begun yet, even though the teachers union said its members voted 93 percent Tuesday night to do so.

RELATED | DPS teachers vote to strike, which could start as soon as Monday

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association warned Denver Public Schools on Jan. 8 they may strike. In accordance with state law, they aren't allowed to actually go on strike until 20 days after that -- Jan. 28, this coming Monday. 

The district can reach out to the governor and ask him to intervene in DCTA's decision to strike. He may be able to stop it, which would mean DPS' 71,000 students wouldn't be without their teachers starting next week. 

At the time of this writing, there is no indication the governor will intervene, although 9NEWS' political reporter Marshall Zelinger spotted Superintendent Susana Cordova and CFO Mark Ferrandino heading into Polis' office. The district indicated Tuesday night they'd seek his intervention on the strike.

Prior to Polis' presser, journalists were encouraged not to ask about the strike and to keep their questions about the Office of Saving People Money on Health Care. The executive order creating the office was signed at 10:15 a.m., but will need legislative action to actually create change and potential savings.

The office will be helmed by Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera - a mother, cancer survivor and known advocate for affordable health care. The office's goal is to lower health care costs in the state while ensuring the quality of care. 

Its stated goals are many, but four areas of focus include the following, per the executive order Polis signed:

  1. Reducing the cost of individual health insurance by working with the General Assembly to authorize a reinsurance program in Colorado
  2. Developing proposals for a new, lower cost health insurance option
  3. Empowering the Division of Insurance to protect consumers and support rural and mountain communities working to lower their health care costs
  4. Increasing hospital price transparency and establishing programs to reduce prescription drug prices

When outlining the new office and its goals, Polis gave a specific shout-out to the work of 9NEWS and 9Wants to Know. 

"I’ll commend our partners in the press, many of which are here today, including Channel 9, for their exposés on the cost and the impact to consumers of high healthcare costs," he told the gathered media and politicians.

Also at the signing and press conference were six Democratic lawmakers (no Republicans), including State Rep. Dylan Roberts (D-Eagle County), who's already sponsored a state-sponsored health care bill in the state legislature.

"I was honored to stand with [Gov.] Polis and [Lt. Gov.] Primavera for the creation of the Office of Saving People Money on Health Care," Roberts wrote on Twitter. "My colleagues and I in the legislature are excited to be partners in this effort." 

"I don't know how we feel about creating a new office, when we could just have a conversation. (We) probably, in fact, agree on a lot of things," said House Minority Leader Rep. Patrick Neville (R-Castle Rock).

Neville told Next that he did not know about the executive order announcement until we asked him about it.

"I get it, they wanted to make a big hubbub and hoopla over it, but we probably don't need a new office for this. We could probably just have these discussions amongst ourselves," said Neville. "The little brief discussions I have had with the governor, doesn't seem like he is pushing universal or single-payer, but he actually does want to lower the prices. If we can do that, that's something that we'll help out with."

"I would be interested to watch the lobbying costs of pharma and of the hospital association because I believe they are going to start lobbying up," said House Majority Leader Rep. Alec Garnett (D-Denver).

Garnett said that lawmakers would not seek additional taxes on anyone to pay for health care cost savings. But, he said he hopes the state legislature can do something the federal government could not do with President Obama's Affordable Care Act.

"It should’ve been called the 'Increased Coverage Act' because what it really did is that it increased coverage across the state, what it didn’t do was reduce cost for the families that are trying to make ends meet at the end of the month," said Garnett.

RELATED | 4 DPS educators share their perspective on strike

When questions during the presser circled back around to the teachers strike, Polis pointed reporters to the same place the district said to check - a website for updates from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

At 2:15 p.m., the district formally requested intervention by the Department of Labor in response to the Jan. 8 notice of intent to strike from the teachers union. 

The district said it outlined how a strike would affect the public interest, arguing a strike would be bad for the district's parents and students. 

The governor has yet to directly comment on the strike.

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