In this corner, weighing in at a robust 11,023 pounds: the Big Red Republican Elephant. In the opposing corner, tipping the scales at a slim 565 pounds: the Majority Blue Democrat Donkey.
Ding, ding, ding.
Surprise, surprise, a fight is brewing on Capitol Hill as members of both political parties are returning to Denver after a seven-month hiatus from the legislature.
When the 2007 session broke in May, it was largely considered a cordial gathering behind an all-Democrat leadership for the first time since the ’60s. Let’s go out on a limb here, the civility between the majority Dems and minority Republicans is about to end with one injection—the mere mention of healthcare reform, and gasp, Universal Healthcare.
“I can tell you, I’m going on 14 years down here, and healthcare has been the Gordian knot that no legislature has been able to untie,” Sen. Ron Tupa, D-Boulder, says just a few weeks prior to the early January opening of the 2008 Legislative session.
But with Gov. Bill Ritter labeling reform a priority, the 100 members of both houses of congress will press the issue pondering at least five potential solutions that range from a mild tweaking to a complete overhaul—and potentially universal healthcare
Sometime in the next month or so, a 24-member commission appointed by elected officials will present a year’s worth of work, research and head-butting. The group, named the 208 Commission, was given the task of finding a solution that increases health coverage while reducing cost in a state that has an estimated 792,000 uninsured.
“This really is the big gorilla for the state to deal with,” says Edi Sonn, a 208 Commission staffer with 20 years experience in the field. “The thing that makes providing health service so difficult is it’s so bloody expensive.”
The group culled 31 proposals submitted by the public (everyone from insurance companies to doctors to regular citizens).
Commission members picked four and added one option of their own. They’ve presented the five options in brief form at numerous public meetings. The proposals range from minor tweaks to systems already in place (adding subsidies to help the poor pay for private insurance) to ones that require residents to have insurance to the single-payer option, which is expected to shave healthcare spending in Colorado $1.3 billion annually but be funded entirely by tax-payer dollars.
“The question I’m going to be struggling with is do you want to make wholesale changes that will fix it all, or do you piecemeal it, address minor things here and there,” Tupa ponders.
If it’s up to his constituents in Boulder County, and perhaps even more so in the liberal-leaning North Metro region in general, the single payer, or option No. 4, is the way to go.
Single payer, by the way, is code for universal healthcare, the term that forces politicians to run for their respective party lines.
“We’ve done 24 community meetings; at every single one we hear from many (that) single payer is the only way to go,” Sonn admits, noting that six of the 31 proposals that the 208 group received revolved around the single payer notion. Sonn says that despite the public’s call for single payer, it would be difficult to implement on a state-level basis as there are some significant federal issues to consider.
Under this proposal, healthcare would fall under the purview of government, it would cover everyone, and services would be free at the time of the visit. It would, of course, be funded entirely by taxpayer dollars, thus requiring the legislature to pass it on to the voters to approve the additional $15 billion annually that the state would need to pony up. The program would cost about $28 billion annually—currently, when adding private and public dollars, more than $30 billion is spent each year on healthcare in Colorado.
It’s the most controversial of the offerings, but that may not keep it from becoming the popular pick among Democrats. Tupa, who admittedly hasn’t fully studied up on the options as of yet, confirms he is open to the idea of single payer. He attended one of 208’s regional meetings where he heard from Boulder County residents who want it.
“I’m hearing the most support for single payer,” he says.
Rep. Dianne Primavera, D-Broomfield, has heard the same message at her town-hall style meetings. If the Dems push this option, it’s going to lead to raucous discussions and political fighting. Think about last year’s squabbling over a resolution to oppose President Bush’s Iraq war, on crack.
Universal healthcare is a party-line issue, plain and simple.
Democrats, whether on the local or national level (see Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, etc.), tend to favor government programs that take the profit out of healthcare.
Republicans argue that Big Government has no place in healthcare. The Colorado GOP sees the solution in a much more simple manner—reduce regulations, allow more medical entities to compete for business and let the free market lower prices.
The differences between the ideologies could doom major overhaul.
“They’re not great because there really is a difference of opinion here,” says Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, referencing the odds that the two sides will reach consensus. “Republicans say the free market is blocked…healthcare is all screwed up with regulations from government interference.”
Mitchell plans on pitching a proposal that will make it easier for residents to buy medication over state lines, making care more affordable with added competition—without government intervention. He says all of the 208 Commission recommendations require too much government spending to win the approval of voters.
But if the Dems feel there’s enough in-party support, it may be tough for Republicans to build a speed bump big enough to slow the majority. Universal plans face stiff objections from interests in big-business healthcare, however, and, of course, the hurdle of winning voter fervor.
This could be why the non-partisan 208 Commission isn’t recommending the single payer option out of the five. The group will be suggesting the fifth option, the one they came up with after pouring through research, proposals and much discussion.
Their program would mandate residents carry health insurance, and include programs and subsidies to ensure the poor can afford it. It would require about $1.1 billion in additional state spending, meaning finding cash for the program would likely require voter approval, too.
They’ll pitch it nonetheless.
And when they do, a many liberals will agree, and other Dems will fight for the single payer model. Most Republicans will take Mitchell’s stance and look for solutions that keep medicine in theprivate sector.
“To those who want a single payer system, be careful what you wish for,” Mitchell says. “For all its flaws, the American healthcare system produces the best results than any system in the world.”
He’s not the only Republican who will be pumping that message. Meanwhile Democrats will be trumpeting rhetoric along the lines of Michael Moore’s “Sicko.” It’ll be interesting to see how much the minority voice is heard and what Colorado’s healthcare system looks like after all the bickering, name-calling and squabbling ends in May. Pull up a seat, the bell’s about to ring. It’ll certainly be entertaining, even if that Gordian knot remains firmly tied in five months.