Former Democratic presidential hopeful and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders rounded out a multi-city tour of Colorado Monday evening with a spirited rally at CU Boulder. Unlike at stops in Denver and Fort Collins, where he campaigned for his former rival Hillary Clinton, Sanders’ speech at CU’s Farrand Field zeroed in on one message: Approve ColoradoCare.
With his characteristic shouting, finger pointing and thick Brooklyn accent, the popular senator urged a crowd of thousands to vote “yes” on Amendment 69, a ballot initiative that would enshrine a single-payer healthcare system in the state constitution.
“Our job is to develop a rational health care system that says when we spend a dollar on health care…it does not go into the pockets of insurance companies or drug companies,” said Sanders. “We have a system today that is not designed to keep us healthy. It is designed to make” — and here the crowd went nuts — “yuuge profits for the insurance companies and the drug companies.”
Amendment 69 would impose a 10 percent payroll tax on all Coloradans to create a $25 million statewide healthcare fund. Employers would pay two-thirds of the tax, and employees would pay the remaining 3.33 percent. An elected 21-member board of trustees would govern the fund, which would provide healthcare for all Colorado residents, with no deductibles, regardless of ability to pay. The amendment’s proponents estimate that 80 percent of Coloradans would pay less for health care than they currently pay.
Sanders acknowledged the high stakes of the ColoradoCare fight. “I know that the insurance companies and the big money interests will spend millions of dollars telling you why we should not pass Amendment 69,” he said. “They will not tell you that in Colorado today…people get sick and die because they don’t go to the doctor when they should, because they don’t have insurance.”
The No on 69 campaign argues that ColoradoCare will decrease consumer choice in healthcare and insufficiently reimburse healthcare providers. Opponents also say that the tax burden on employers will be too high, prodding companies to leave Colorado.
The four biggest donors to No on 69, which so far has raised more than $4 million, are insurance companies. The campaign for Amendment 69, ColoradoCare Yes, has raised just under $800,000. A mid-September poll led by Colorado Mesa University found that only 30 percent of Colorado voters supported Amendment 69, with 56 percent opposed.
In an interview with The Colorado Independent, Green Party U.S. Senate Candidate Arn Menconi said the cost of ColoradoCare pales in comparison to the predicted rise in the cost of Affordable Care Act plans next year. “What people should be worried about is the 20 to 40 percent increases in their healthcare coverage,” he said. “The free market system does not work. We know that because ObamaCare is not working.”
Ryan Burmester, a 21-year-old CU student, says he knows the burden of health care costs all too well. His mother has had three forms of cancer, and though she works as a waitress, her insurance has been insufficient to keep up with spirally costs. “It killed us financially,” Burmester said of the medical expenses. Both he and his sister, who is five years younger, have had to work to help their family pay off overwhelming debts. “I’ve been working since I was 12,” he said.
Dyson Breakstone, 27, says he knows it, too. Like Sen. Sanders, Breakstone is from Vermont. There, when he was 23 years old, a freak woodchopping accident nearly sliced off his thumb and sent him to the emergency room. Though he was uninsured at the time, he qualified for retroactive Medicaid and only had to pay about $3,000 out of pocket. But in 2013, after moving to Colorado, he suffered a twist fracture in his finger while snowboarding and again ended up in the hospital. This time, he didn’t qualify for retroactive coverage — and he has paid dearly for it.
“I’m $13,000 in debt, and I didn’t really get anything for my money — it’s not like I took out a credit card,” he said. “I don’t think someone should be in crippling amounts of debt through no fault of their own.” Breakstone, who has been working since he was 16, says only one employer has ever provided him with health insurance.
By the time Sanders took the stage, the more than 2,000 students and community members in attendance, many wearing now-vintage “Bernie” T-shirts and buttons, were shivering in the biting October wind.
State Rep. Jonathan Singer, among those who took the stage before Sanders, appealed to the young crowd by emphasizing his advocacy for recreational marijuana. He said he had two words: “administrative overhead.” He said that ColoradoCare would cut wasteful spending and increase efficiency in the healthcare system.
State Sen. Irene Aguilar, a practicing physician and a primary author of Amendment 69, took the stage in her white lab coat to advocate for healthcare as a human right. “If a purple state like Colorado works to get universal healthcare, the other states will follow, and in the future we will have healthcare for all,” she said.
Sanders, too, made this point. “If you can pass ColoradoCare, then I guarantee you states all over this country will be following in your footsteps,” he said. “Millions of people all over this country are watching what you do and are supporting your efforts.
“You in Colorado have the opportunity to lead that effort. Stand tall — let’s pass Amendment 69.”
Photo credit: Jackson Barnett