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In region where AHCA would hit hardest, Sen. Bennet blasts Republicans for secrecy

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PUEBLO – For places such as Pueblo, where nearly 40 percent of the population gets healthcare coverage from Medicaid, the hurdle in preparing for what comes next in health insurance legislation is perhaps that nobody knows what comes next.

Friday morning during a news briefing following a healthcare roundtable with local and state  leaders, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet blasted Senate Republicans for working in secrecy on the Affordable Health Care Act, the GOP response to Obama’s Affordable Care Act. AHCA has already passed the House and is awaiting a Senate vote.

“Now we know in the Senate that they are so ashamed of the bill they’re working on that they won’t even share it with other Republican colleagues in the Senate, much less Democrats or the American people,” Bennet said. “(These are) Senators that complained the Affordable Care Act was rushed through after countless hearings and countless meetings and 25 days of open debate on the floor that led to the adoption of not only Democratic amendments, but hundreds of Republican amendments.

“(Those Republicans) are now behind closed doors, ashamed to show the American people what they’re working on.”

The senator joined Gov. John Hickenlooper and regional healthcare industry leaders at the Pueblo Community Health Center. US Sen. Cory Gardner was invited to the roundtable, the governor confirmed, but had prior commitments.

Bennet said his best hope for the legislation is that the bill can’t pass with Republicans alone and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will have to engage Democrats. Ideally, that would result in a bipartisan approach to the bill — which Bennet said should have happened all along.

One reporter at the news briefing asked if Bennet or Democrats could do anything more.

“Well, you could break into the room,” Bennet said jokingly. “Rand Paul famously went over to the House side when they were writing their bill in secret. He took a pocket copier with him. He’s a Republican.”

Bennet added that more and more of his Republican colleagues are “less and less” comfortable with the path of the bill.

“We will use the procedural hurdles that are available to us to make sure that they can’t ultimately do this in secret all the way through,” Bennet said.

Bennet said Republicans are hoping to have a vote within two weeks, when the Senate is set to break for the summer.

In the meantime, Colorado lawmakers have little idea on how to prepare for whatever may be coming down to states because of the secrecy.

Pueblo Rep. Daneya Esgar, Vice Chair of the House Health, Insurance and Environment Committee, told PULP there’s a lot of uncertainty for what happens next in Pueblo, Southern Colorado and the state.

Esgar said she hasn’t heard of a worst case scenario. But the amount of people who would be left without any coverage at all is troubling.

With more uninsured, as the Congressional Budget Office points out would be the case in passing the AHCA, Pueblo Community Health Center CEO Donald Moore said local emergency rooms would likely have to expand to meet the demands of uninsured people who would no longer have access to preventative care and family doctors.

“That’s pretty much crisis mode,” Esgar said, adding that having Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne helping navigate Colorado’s options has been invaluable.

Lynne served as the executive vice president of Kaiser Foundation Health Plan Inc. and Kaiser Foundation Hospitals prior to being appointed to her seat.

During the briefing, Hickenlooper stressed how important Medicaid coverage has been for rural Colorado — the place, Hickenlooper said, would see the greatest impact from the passage of AHCA.

185,000 rural Coloradans utilize healthcare because of Medicaid coverage, Hickenlooper said, addressing reporters. 57,000 of those have Medicaid coverage because of expansion.

“It’s robbing the poor to pay the rich,” said Hickenlooper, who, along with a bipartisan group of governors, sent a letter Friday urging McConnell to take a bipartisan approach to the healthcare legislation.

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Local and independent journalism is under threat in the West and you change that.  With corporate raiders slashing newsrooms across the West, the PULP is one of the "Last Locals" in Colorado to produce original, compelling journalism missing in today's profit hungry world. But that costs money, time and hard work. We don't believe in spamming you with ads or putting up restrictive paywalls and that's why we need your help.

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Colorado’s unaffiliated voters get to join in on primary politics

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Colorado is joining a growing list of states that allow unaffiliated voters — the state’s largest voting bloc — to participate in the major party primaries, thanks to a voter-passed initiative that coincided with disenchantment with the polarization of the 2016 election.

The 2016 initiative allows Colorado’s 1.2 million active independent voters to cast ballots Tuesday in either the Democratic or Republican party primaries on Tuesday. The initiative passed in a year that saw presidential candidate Bernie Sanders defeat Hillary Clinton in Colorado caucuses and yet a strong vote for Donald Trump in the general election, though he lost the state.

Early mail and drop-off ballot returns suggest that more independents are voting Democratic in a tight gubernatorial primary to succeed term-limited Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper. It’s too early to predict independents’ turnout or impact on the campaigns, advocates said.

“What this means for the races will take time to see,” said Josh Penry, a political consultant and former Republican state Senate minority leader who campaigned for the initiative. “As the parties self-immolate and people flee them, it’s important that they can vote in the semi-finals.”

“The reality is the GOP and the Democrats should be thinking about how to appeal to the people in this enormous bloc,” Penry said.

But there’s little sign that the major party gubernatorial candidates are reaching out in this swing state where Democrats and Republicans each have roughly 1 million registered voters.

Presumed Democratic front-runners U.S. Rep. Jared Polis and former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy espouse universal health care, their public schools credentials, protecting public lands and promoting renewable energy. Republicans, including Treasurer Walker Stapleton, a cousin of President George W. Bush, generally embrace President Donald Trump’s immigration crackdown and income tax cuts and promote Colorado’s oil and gas industry.

It’s that polar opposite, take-it-or-leave-it campaign buffet that prompted Alex Leith, a Denver civil engineer, to abandon the Democratic Party and become an unaffiliated voter two years ago.

He saw the Sanders and Trump rebellions as signs that traditional party politics weren’t working for people like himself, a self-described fiscal conservative and social liberal.

“I was seeing a lot of hypocrisy coming from Republicans and Democrats,” Leith said. “I wanted to see a return to a common sense ability to actually govern and work across party lines.”

The 27-year-old cast his gubernatorial primary ballot this year for Republican businessman and former state Rep. Victor Mitchell. “He’s willing to not totally align himself with Republican dogma,” Leith said, citing Mitchell’s support for a “red flag” law that would allow the seizure of firearms from those who pose a danger to themselves or others.

“I’m also encouraged by the fact that he’s willing to admit when he isn’t knowledgeable about certain topics — but is willing to study them,” Leith said.

Supporters of the semi-open primary argue that independent voters like Leith pay for the party primaries and should have a say in them.

Whether that generates higher turnout or moderate candidate positions could take several election cycles to determine. Arizona, Kansas, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island and West Virginia also allow independents to vote in primaries.

As of early Thursday, nearly 540,000 Coloradans had voted — including nearly 123,000 independents. Democrats and Republicans had returned about 208,000 ballots for each party.

In 2016, 21 percent of active voters participated in the primary.

“Our data and our experience points to how philosophically diverse Colorado is. There is no such thing as a generic independent,” said Kent Thiry, the CEO of Denver-based dialysis firm DaVita Inc., who spearheaded the 2016 initiative.

“I’ve been an independent most of my adult life,” Thiry said. “To not have a voice until the final election in a country where the primary has become the final election … that is very frustrating to me.”

Thiry’s group released a poll this week suggesting that education, health care, jobs and the economy are the top issues for Colorado’s unaffiliated voters.

Seth Masket, director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver, is skeptical that the new system will produce an immediate impact.

“A lot of states allow some version of this, and honestly the research suggests it doesn’t make that much of a difference whether (the primary) is open or closed,” Masket said. “The nominees end up looking like the one the parties would choose themselves.”

Also running to succeed Hickenlooper are former Democratic state Sen. Mike Johnston and Democratic Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne. Republican businessman Greg Lopez and investment banker Doug Robinson, a nephew of Utah senate candidate Mitt Romney, want their party’s nomination.

Colorado hasn’t elected a Republican governor since 1998.

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Local and independent journalism is under threat in the West and you change that.  With corporate raiders slashing newsrooms across the West, the PULP is one of the "Last Locals" in Colorado to produce original, compelling journalism missing in today's profit hungry world. But that costs money, time and hard work. We don't believe in spamming you with ads or putting up restrictive paywalls and that's why we need your help.

For every contribution, we put 100% back into producing original and amazing journalism. That's a promise only a local and independent newsroom can promise. Take heart because you will fuel stories just like this one and the future of journalism.
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Some parents worry new drug approval could shift States’ attitudes on medicinal cannabis

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Some American parents who for years have used cannabis to treat severe forms of epilepsy in their children are feeling more cautious than celebratory as U.S. regulators near a decision on whether to approve the first drug derived from the marijuana plant.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to issue a decision by the end of the month on the drug Epidiolex, made by GW Pharmaceuticals. It’s a purified form of cannabidiol — a component of cannabis that doesn’t get users high — to treat Dravet and Lennox-Gastaut syndromes in kids. Both forms of epilepsy are rare.

Cannabidiol’s effect on a variety of health conditions is frequently touted, but there is still little evidence to back up advocates’ personal experiences. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has long categorized cannabis as a Schedule I drug, a category with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” That strictly limits research on potential medical uses for cannabis or the chemicals in it, including cannabidiol, or CBD.

But for years, parents desperate to find anything to help their children have turned to the marijuana-based products made legal by a growing number of states.

Meagan Patrick is among the parents using CBD to treat symptoms in their children. She moved from Maine to Colorado in 2014 so she could legally get CBD for her now-5-year-old daughter, Addelyn, who was born with a brain malformation that causes seizures.

“My child was dying, and we needed to do something,” Patrick said.

As for the potential approval of a pharmaceutical based on CBD, she said fear is her first reaction.

“I want to make sure that her right to continue using what works for her is protected, first and foremost. That’s my job as her mom,” Patrick said.

Advocates like Patrick became particularly concerned when GW Pharmaceuticals’ U.S. commercial business, Greenwich Biosciences, began quietly lobbying to change states’ legal definition of marijuana, beginning in 2017 with proposals in Nebraska and South Dakota.

Some worried the company’s attempt to ensure its product could be legally prescribed and sold by pharmacies would have a side effect: curtailing medical marijuana programs already operating in more than two dozen states.

The proposals generally sought to remove CBD from states’ legal definition of marijuana, allowing it to be prescribed by doctors and supplied by pharmacies. But the change only applies to products that have FDA approval.

Neither Nebraska nor South Dakota allows medical use of marijuana, and activists accused the company of trying to shut down future access to products containing cannabidiol but lacking FDA approval.

Britain-based GW Pharmaceuticals never intended for the changes to affect other marijuana products, but they are necessary to allow Epidiolex to be sold in pharmacies if approved, spokesman Stephen Schultz said.

He would not discuss other places where the company will seek changes to state law. The Associated Press confirmed that lobbyists representing Greenwich Biosciences backed legislation in California and Colorado this year.

“As a company, we understand there’s a significant business building up,” Schultz said. “All we want to do is make sure our product is accessible.”

Industry lobbyists in those states said they take company officials at their word, but they still insisted on protective language ensuring that recreational or medical marijuana, cannabidiol, hemp and other products derived from cannabis plants won’t be affected by the changes sought by GW Pharmaceuticals.

Patrick Goggin, an attorney who focuses on industrial hemp issues in California, said the company would run into trouble if it tried to “lock up access” to marijuana-derived products beyond FDA-approved drugs.

“People need to have options and choices,” he said. “That’s the battle here.”

Legal experts say the changes are logical. Some states’ laws specifically prohibit any product derived from the marijuana plant from being sold in pharmacies. The FDA has approved synthetic versions of another cannabis ingredient for medical purposes but has never approved marijuana or hemp for any medical use.

A panel of FDA advisers in April unanimously recommended the agency approve Epidiolex for the treatment of severe seizures in children with epilepsy, conditions that are otherwise difficult to treat. It’s not clear why CBD reduces seizures in some patients, but the panel based its recommendation on three studies showing significant reduction in children with two forms of epilepsy.

Denver-based attorney Christian Sederberg, who worked on the GW Pharmaceuticals-backed legislation in Colorado on behalf of the marijuana industry, said all forms of marijuana can exist together.

“The future of the industry is showing itself here,” Sederberg said. “There’s going to be the pharmaceutical lane, the nutraceutical (food-as-medicine) lane, the adult-use lane. This shows how that’s all coming together.”

Alex and Jenny Inman said they won’t switch to Epidiolex if it becomes available, though their son Lukas has Lennox-Gastaut syndrome.

Alex, an information technology professional, and Jenny, a preschool teacher, said it took some at-home experimentation to find the right combination of doctor-prescribed medication, CBD and THC — the component that gives marijuana users a high — that seemed to help Lukas with his seizures.

“What makes me a little bit nervous about this is that there’s sort of a psyche amongst patients that, ‘Here’s this pill, and this pill will solve things,’ right? It works differently for different people,” Alex Inman said.

The Inmans moved from Maryland to Colorado in 2015 after doctors recommended a second brain surgery for Lukas’ seizures. The couple and other parents and advocates for CBD said children respond differently to a variety of strains.

The Realm of Caring Foundation, an organization co-founded by Paige Figi, whose daughter Charlotte’s name is attached to the CBD oil Charlotte’s Web, said it maintains a registry of about 46,000 people worldwide who use CBD.

For Heather Jackson, who said her son Zaki, now 15, benefited from CBD and who co-founded the foundation, Epidiolex’s approval means insurers will begin paying for treatment with a cannabis-derived product.

“That might be a nice option for some families who, you know, really want to receive a prescription who are going to only listen to the person in the white coat,” Jackson said.

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Local and independent journalism is under threat in the West and you change that.  With corporate raiders slashing newsrooms across the West, the PULP is one of the "Last Locals" in Colorado to produce original, compelling journalism missing in today's profit hungry world. But that costs money, time and hard work. We don't believe in spamming you with ads or putting up restrictive paywalls and that's why we need your help.

For every contribution, we put 100% back into producing original and amazing journalism. That's a promise only a local and independent newsroom can promise. Take heart because you will fuel stories just like this one and the future of journalism.
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Colorado to toughen car pollution rules

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Colorado’s governor on Tuesday ordered his state to adopt vehicle pollution rules enforced in California, joining other states in resisting the Trump administration’s plans to ease emission standards.

Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper told state regulators to begin writing rules that incorporate California’s low-emission standards with a goal of putting them in place by the end of the year.

Hickenlooper said the strict standards are important to Colorado, citing climate change and noting the state’s elevation makes pollution worse.

“Our communities, farms and wilderness areas are susceptible to air pollution and a changing climate,” his order said. “It’s critical for Coloradans’ health and Colorado’s future that we meet these challenges head-on.”

Hickenlooper’s order came about three months after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it would not implement stricter emissions rules adopted by the Obama administration. Those rules would have started with the 2022 model year.

California has a waiver under federal Clean Air Act allowing it to impose tougher standards than the U.S. rules. Currently, California’s standards are the same as the federal standards. But if the Trump administration foregoes the stricter Obama-era rules, California could still impose them or others.

The law allows other states to apply California’s standards. Colorado would be the 13th state, excluding California, to do so, said Luke Tonachel, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s clean vehicles project. The District of Columbia has also adopted the rules.

The states that currently apply California’s rules are Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

“Colorado is recognizing along with other states that the federal rollback is both unjustified and harmful, so the governor is joining others in protecting his state’s citizens,” Tonachel said.

The Colorado Automobile Dealers Association said California standards might not be a good fit for Colorado because a higher percentage of Coloradans buys pickups, SUVS, vans and all-wheel-drive vehicles, which burn more gas.

“We’re disappointed that the state of Colorado, the governor, or regulatory board or anybody else would cede air quality control regulation to an out-of-state, unelected board in Sacramento (California),” said Tim Jackson, president of the association.

The Obama rules would have required the nationwide fleet of new vehicles to get 36 miles per gallon (15 kilometers per liter) in real-world driving by 2025. That’s about 10 mpg (4 kilometers per liter) over the existing standard.

The EPA announced in April it would scrap the Obama-era rules, questioning whether they were technically feasible and citing concerns about how much they would add to the cost of vehicles. The EPA said it would come up with different rules.

California and 16 other states sued the Trump administration over the plan to drop the tougher rules. All the states that joined the lawsuit have Democratic attorneys general. Colorado, which has a Republican attorney general, did not join.

One more thing...

Local and independent journalism is under threat in the West and you change that.  With corporate raiders slashing newsrooms across the West, the PULP is one of the "Last Locals" in Colorado to produce original, compelling journalism missing in today's profit hungry world. But that costs money, time and hard work. We don't believe in spamming you with ads or putting up restrictive paywalls and that's why we need your help.

For every contribution, we put 100% back into producing original and amazing journalism. That's a promise only a local and independent newsroom can promise. Take heart because you will fuel stories just like this one and the future of journalism.
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