KEYSTONE, Colo. — Eight Colorado legislators from both major parties agreed on one thing at this year’s Colorado Health Symposium – health care is costing their constituents a fortune, and they do need to do something about it.
Health care costs have risen by eight times since 1980, said Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen. “We’re talking about a huge increase in costs to the citizens of Colorado,” she said.
While there was no consensus on future moves in the state legislature, there was a noticeable lack of fireworks and refusal to find common ground that is now coloring political debate in Washington over the debt ceiling. The lawmakers gathered to talk policy during the first of the three-day conference that is drawing 400 health care providers, policy setters and advocates from across Colorado.
Rep. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, offered a simple suggestion for reducing the cost of health care.
“I use my medical knowledge two hours of my eight-hour day,” said Aguilar, who is also a primary care physician “The rest is something someone else could do,” she said, but the system won’t pay her if she delegates the work.
“We need to allow them to be paid,” she said.
Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, said she was vehemently opposed to the federal health care law because of what it did not do. She said “shouting matches” over death panels prevented an honest dialogue about the enormous amounts of money spent in the last months of life and what could be done about that care.
“Things did not go in that bill because we were afraid,” said Roberts, who described herself as a supporter of hospice care, which focuses on comfort rather than cures for the terminally ill.
“It was a failure of political leadership and courage. I would point fingers on both sides of the aisle,” Roberts said.
She added, “I do not like to see Republicans say we have the best system in the world. That is clearly not true.”
Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, argued in favor of tackling obesity and the health of Coloradans’ diets as necessary to bring down the cost of health care in the long term.
“We really know the things we can do from a prevention standard that will bring costs down,” Massey said. And cost is the biggest complaint he hears.
Rep. Ken Summers, R-Lakewood, said Coloradans prefer to avoid talking about their high rates of alcohol and drug abuse.
“It impacts our society in a much more pervasive way than a lot of people realize, in mental health, education, social services, Medicaid, the criminal justice system, social safety net, the health care system. Seventy percent of child abuse is a direct result of a family that abuses drugs,” he said.
Former Gov. Dick Lamm, who moderated the panel of legislators, noted that health care cost four times as much as state taxes. Yet, “there’s a demand for accountability for government but not for accountability of the health care system,” the Democrat said.
Aguilar said she was happy to see that “we are not yet a society that will let somebody come to an emergency room door and die.” But she sees patients in her primary care office as dying for lack of care. “They are dying because they have diabetes, they can’t afford to buy the medicines, to buy the healthy food, and they work two jobs and can’t exercise. But the second their kidneys fail, they are on Medicaid.”
She was referring to the government insurance program for the low-income, which will pay for dialysis to save a life, but not what’s needed to prevent the dialysis.
“If we are not going to let people die on the streets, how are we going to pay for it? We do ration medical care. But we need to do it rationally,” Aguilar said.
Sen. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, told a tale of a company picnic next to a river, where suddenly the partygoers had to spring into action to rescue first one child from drowning, then another and another. One man seemed to give up. But when asked where he was going, the man replied, “I’m going to drive upstream and try to figure out who is throwing children into the river.”
He said his goal in health care reform is figuring out who is throwing children into the river.
The two other legislative panelists included Sen. Betty Boyd, D-Lakewood and Sen. Jeanne Nicholson, D-Black Hawk.