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Improving Colorado health care an uphill fight

Colorado may be known as one of the healthiest, fittest states in the nation. But if you get sick, chances are no better you'll be taken care of here than they would be elsewhere.

Thanks to surging unemployment, state budget cuts and skyrocketing premiums, the number of Coloradans lacking health insurance may be as high as 700,000 -- more than 15 percent of the population -- and is growing. That roughly mirrors the nation as a whole, where 44 million people, or 15 percent, lack coverage.

The statewide crisis has sparked the formation of at least two grass-roots organizations working to improve access to care, the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative and Health Care for All Colorado. The groups are part of a nationwide universal-care movement that has been working on a state-by-state basis since President Bill Clinton's efforts to reform the system at the national level failed a decade ago.

The movement has seen some success; for example, Maine recently approved a universal health-care plan. But in Colorado, things have been headed in reverse, says Lorez Meinhold, director of the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative, a nonprofit group.

"Part of the reason things are going backwards is money," Meinhold said.

In cutting the state budget to make up for plummeting revenues, the Legislature recently eliminated Medicaid benefits for legal immigrants and relaxed requirements to cover mental health as part of group insurance plans. State lawmakers also cut federally funded prenatal care programs.

Such decisions will come back to bite us, says Meinhold. The costs to treat those who no longer have insurance will simply be shifted to those who still have coverage, and reductions in preventive programs such as prenatal care for expectant mothers and their babies will increase long-term health-care costs.

"Cutting prenatal care is shooting yourself in the foot," Meinhold said.

The Consumer Health Initiative, formed three years ago, develops proposals for how to make the existing health-care system cover more people, but it doesn't advocate any sweeping overhaul, Meinhold says.

In contrast, Health Care for All Colorado is working to implement a more drastic fix: single-payer health care, in which health care itself remains private but the government provides insurance coverage for every man, woman and child.

"It's the only way, really, to cover everyone and keep costs down," said Jim Berry, who heads the group's Colorado Springs chapter.

At least 37 of the world's industrialized countries -- practically all but the United States -- have some form of single-payer health-care system, according to Berry. Meanwhile, the United States spends more money per person on health care than any other nation.

One of the biggest cost drivers in American health care is the high overhead created by having so many for-profit health-insurance providers, Berry says. The way to save, he says, "is to get rid of all the administrative waste" by creating one single insurance system.

The system would also eliminate hassles for the average person, such as co-pays, complicated paperwork and restrictions on pre-existing conditions, Health Care for All Colorado promises.

The group hopes to eventually gather signatures for a ballot initiative that would create a single-payer system in Colorado. However, that's likely a few years off, Berry said.

The Consumer Health Initiative, meanwhile, isn't ready yet to jump on the single-payer bandwagon. "I don't think there's enough public support," Meinhold said.

--Terje Langeland

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