Jared Polis: Bringing Universal Health Care to Colorado

Jared Polis
Guest Commentary

Last spring I found myself on the House floor imploring my Republican colleagues not to jam through a bill that would have taken affordable health care away from 20 million Americans.

It was one of the toughest nights of all my time in Congress. For me, no one illustrated the stakes better than a young Coloradan named Kimberlin.

Kimberlin was my student a decade ago at the New America School, a public school I founded for new immigrants where I served as superintendent. She suffered from diabetes, a manageable disease with the right preventive treatments. But without health insurance, she could only get care by allowing her health to degrade to the point she had to go to the ER. Eventually she needed dialysis, and today she is on the waitlist for a kidney transplant. She is an exceptionally bright, compassionate, good-hearted young woman who has spent years battling her health when she should have been living her life and supporting her family.

It should never happen this way — not for Kimberlin, not for anyone. Health care is a human right. I believed that 10 years ago when I first ran for Congress on a platform of Medicare for All, and I believe it today. And yet, my colleagues were hell-bent on causing millions to suffer the same way that Kimberlin has.

With the absence of leadership coming from Washington, we need to think outside the box and lead the charge ourselves to bring universal health coverage to Colorado.

I’m running for governor because it’s time for us to translate the core value that health care is a human right into public policy. It’s not only the right thing to do, but the most cost-effective way to reform health care in the long-term.

A Regional Single-Payer Model

If I’m elected governor of Colorado, I will work with other western states to tackle our shared health care challenges. Together, we can pioneer a groundbreaking multi-state consortium to offer a universal, single-payer option out west. With states partnering in cost-sharing, development, and implementation, we can provide coverage to more people at a lower cost and better quality of care than a state implementing such a system would alone.

Western states suffer from many of the same issues plaguing Colorado, including rising health care costs and premiums that price rural citizens out of care. In fact, 20 percent of rural Coloradans lack insurance, and 11 counties don’t have a hospital. A multi-state single-payer system would allow us to better analyze access to providers for rural Colorado and correct disparities of primary-care availability in these areas.

We can turn this idea into reality by working in a bipartisan way on a shared set of strong legal standards for implementing the system. By removing the moral hazards and perverse incentives to deny coverage that exists in private insurance, we can put people before politics and be a regional model for the rest of the nation. Insurance creates the most value with the largest possible risk pool, so why shouldn’t all of us be in one risk pool to prevent gaming the system?

Preventive Care

Another key element of universal health care is prevention. That means not only continuing to guarantee coverage for preventive health visits, but also enabling more Coloradans to live healthy lifestyles that lead to lower long-term costs and better quality-of-life. After all, none of us set New Year’s resolutions to “receive more health care.” We set resolutions with the goal of achieving better health.

Preventive health begins in childhood. By ensuring children receive quality minutes of physical activity per day throughout their education, and never restricting physical activity as punishment for behavior in the classroom, we build lifelong healthy habits for our kids. Additionally, we should repeal outdated provisions in our law that prevent municipalities from raising their own tobacco tax without having to surrender revenue from the state’s tobacco tax. Getting this giveaway to Big Tobacco off our books is a bipartisan goal government can aggressively pursue to bring down costs and promote longer, healthier lives.

Preventive health also includes paid leave. When we force employees to choose between keeping their paycheck or staying home to recover from an illness, we raise the risk of health complications and long-term health consequences. When we force parents to choose between holding onto their job and caring for their sick child, we harm the healthy physical and psychological development of our children. It’s time to bring paid sick, family, and medical leave to Colorado.

Reproductive Health

Finally, if we are truly going to commit ourselves to universal health care, we also must take seriously the issues of reproductive care and reproductive justice. We can’t very well claim to value health care as a human right at the same time that we try to criminalize abortion or leave low-income women without access to safe, affordable prenatal and infant care.

As governor, I will fight for equal pay policies and ensure that workforce protections are in place that allow women to seek the care they need when they need it. I will work alongside lawmakers and advocates to permanently fund the Long-Acting Reversible Contraception program, which has succeeded in reducing teen abortion rates by nearly two thirds. And I will use my position to center the voices of women of color in forming a task force to address the systemic barriers to reproductive health for women due to economic, racial, ability, and immigratory factors.

These proposals are only the beginning of the comprehensive approach we need to make health care truly universal. We will also have to account for the unique barriers rural communities face, as well as issues like mental health care, the cost of prescription drugs, and the opioid epidemic that is ravaging Colorado communities. I look forward to outlining my plans to tackle these challenges in these pages throughout the week.

Most of us agree that health care is a human right. But like any big idea, turning it into action will require hard work and cooperation from Coloradans from all walks of life. Let’s get started.

Jared Polis is a Democratic candidate for Colorado governor and currently is the U.S. representative for Colorado’s 2nd District. This editorial is the first in a series of three running this week on Polis’ plans for health care in our state. His next editorial Wednesday will focus on rural health.