Standing outside Monument's Walmart on Saturday morning to spread the word about health care reform and veterans' medical benefits, Tony Wolusky struck up a conversation with a woman and got a warm, fuzzy feeling.
First, he learned the woman, in her 40s or 50s, had gotten up early that morning to run in a 5-kilometer fund-raising race to support Crawford House, a local veterans home.
"Oh, I was there," Wolusky told her, heartened by the shared experience.
Next, the two found more common ground praising the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' health care system.
"I figured, 'Oh, there's a bond,'" Wolusky says. So he moved toward the topic of health care reform proposed by President Barack Obama.
That's when the conversation hit a wall.
"We are heading for socialized medicine," the woman said.
Wolusky's conversation foreshadows the struggles ahead as Obama and congressional Democrats push to revamp the system. Wolusky says part of the reason he and other volunteers with the president's post-election political organization spent Saturday chatting with their neighbors in northern El Paso County was to take the "pulse of what people think around here."
Their encounters in a particularly conservative corner of the region uncovered a range of suspicions, prompting Wolusky to conclude: "It's going to be a hard sell for people in my area."
That might not be true for all of El Paso County. Mike Maday, a prominent local volunteer in the Obama campaign and a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, says reforming the health system was on everyone's mind last fall as he knocked on doors and talked to voters. Though he didn't join Wolusky on Saturday, he's also stayed active pushing for reform — the big thing now, he says, is convincing legislators the issue is urgent.
"They've got to hear from people," he says.
To do his part, Maday joined other advocates last week in Washington, D.C., for meetings and rallies sponsored by the Service Employees International Union and other pro-reform groups. He talked with six members of Colorado's delegation: both senators as well as Reps. Ed Perlmutter, Betsy Markey, Diana DeGette and Jared Polis.
Maday wasn't so lucky with Rep. Doug Lamborn, whose district includes El Paso County. He got only a conversation with a junior staffer who expressed Lamborn's general belief that a free-market solution is needed to fix the country's health care woes. (Lamborn has not issued any statements or press releases on health care reform, and he could not be reached for comment early this week.)
Though Obama is pushing Congress to pass a health care reform bill by August, there are now multiple proposals on the table and no clear sense what the final legislation will look like. The big debate is whether there should be a public option that would compete against offerings from private insurance companies.
While Maday and other reform advocates fight to keep the public option in play, many conservatives see it as a step toward a single-payer system — which, to many of them, constitutes "socialized medicine."
Kay Rendleman, chair of the El Paso County Republican Party, argues that a public health care option would be too costly and would force out competition, resulting in a decline in quality. Whatever reforms are passed, she says, she prefers to see medical decisions made by patients and doctors, "as opposed to some government bureaucracy."
That's one place there's a disconnect between progressives and conservatives. Wolusky says he appreciated the health care he got during 28 years in the Air Force, and he believes the government would do a better job overseeing medical treatment than profit-driven companies have done.
"[Health care] is as fundamental as police and fire," he says, adding, "I don't think bureaucracy is a bad thing."