Colorado could become the first state with universal health care if proponents of a new ballot measure get their way. It’s a move at least one presidential contender says could “lead the nation.”
This week, proponents of a new initiative called ColoradoCare say they turned in enough signatures to put a question before voters that, if passed in November 2016, would make Colorado the first state in the nation with a universal health care system.
The move has already drawn a response from Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is running for president as a Democrat.
“Colorado could lead the nation in moving toward a system to ensure better health care for more people at less cost,” Sanders said in a statement to The Colorado Independent. “In the richest nation on earth, we should make health care a right for all citizens. No one should go bankrupt or skip getting the care they need because they cannot afford it.”
Sanders wants universal health care at the federal level paid through the government in a Medicare-for-all model.
In Colorado, the program here would be called ColoradoCare and would do for Colorado what Medicare does for seniors.
When people talk about a universal health care system, what they mean is that everyone gets coverage.
The campaign for the ballot measure in Colorado uses the phrase “universal health care” and shies away from the phrase “single-payer.”
“You can’t do single-payer on a state-by-state basis because there are federal programs that can’t change,” says Ivan Miller, executive director and head of policy of the campaign for the ballot measure. “What ColoradoCare kind of does for Colorado is like what Medicare does for seniors.”
In Colorado, what Miller and his campaign envision is a plan that would cover all residents, and stop Coloradans from having to shop for private insurance. Instead, Coloradans would pay for the system through $25 billion in taxes deducted largely from payrolls.
ColoradoCare would be able to do all this by waiving the state out of the Federal Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, and offer “comprehensive, high-quality” universal health care through a 21-member board of elected members, a giant health care cooperative that would oversee a team of executives. In promotional material for ColoradoCare, proponents liken the model to credit unions, rural electric co-ops, companies like REI, and even the Green Bay Packers.
Residents would pay into the health care system through new taxes and the system would pay health care providers, doing away with the need for Coloradans to shop around for private insurance companies. Proponents say Coloradans would be able to choose their primary care providers, and could also pay for additional coverage through insurance companies if they wish. Certain federal health care programs like Medicare and and the VA “cannot be transferred to ColoradoCare, and will continue coverage, with ColoradoCare providing supplemental benefits,” according to ColoradoCare documents.
“ColoradoCare would be owned by and accountable to the residents of Colorado,” Miller wrote in a brochure prepared for his group that’s pushing the proposal.
The health care would be high quality, proponents say, because in order to get a waiver out of Obamacare, the new system would have to meet or exceed all of the requirements under the Affordable Care Act.
Of course, to pay for universal health care for all in Colorado would be expensive. Doing so will require $25 billion dollars in new revenue, which would come from payroll taxes, proponents say. That would mean employees would pay 3.33 percent of their gross pay, and their employers would pay in 6.67 percent of their payroll. Coloradans who earn non-payroll income would pay a “health care premium tax” of 10 percent of income, capped at $350,000 that would be tax deductible and would come with some exclusions.
Denver Democratic Sen. Irene Aguilar, a medical doctor and a chief cheerleader for the ballot measure, describes the funding model as “sort of a shifting of funds,” rather than a big new tax.
“Coloradans,” she says, “are going to pay $25 billion anyway— it’s just how it’s collected.” (Colorado already collects 5 percent in income taxes to fund state government.)
To create ColoradoCare, voters in November would have to amend Colorado’s constitution like they did in 2013 when voters allowed the state to legalize the sale and use of recreational marijuana.
The ballot measure comes at a shaky time for Colorado’s current health care system. The state’s only nonprofit health insurance co-op, HealthOP, recently collapsed, becoming the seventh in the nation to do so. The implosion, which HealthOP officials blame on both the feds and state regulators, has left more than 80,000 Coloradans scrambling to find new coverage for 2016.
But even if voters pass the ballot measure for universal health care, Colorado would still need a green light from the feds— and the country would have a new president by the time such a system would be able to even assemble. Realistically, the soonest it could happen would likely be January of 2018 under the most optimistic of circumstances.
Dealing with whoever is next in the White House would be key.
“Of course Bernie Sanders would be the easiest,” Aguilar said, indicating that any Democrat would likely be better on the issue than a Republican.
For its part, the Republican Party of Colorado will be taking an official position against the initiative, said Chairman Steve House in an interview with The Independent. House, who has a background in health care, said he would prefer free-market solutions rather than having more government control over how Coloradans are covered.
Photo credit: DonkeyHotey, Creative Commons, Flickr.