Cary Kennedy, Democrat for governor, comes out with a public option healthcare plan

Cary Kennedy

Last month, when talking about how she planned to make healthcare more affordable in Colorado, Cary Kennedy, a Democrat running in a crowded primary for governor, had a rather vague answer.

“I believe in universal healthcare,” she told a crowd under a park pavilion in Breckenridge. “And we’re not there, but we’re going to get there.”

Today she got more specific about how.

“I am proposing giving everyone in Colorado the ability to buy into our public health insurance plans,” she said in a statement. On other words, a Medicaid-for-all plan, also known as a public option, which would allow all state residents to buy into the state’s Medicaid plan, which already covers about 1.4 million, and the health plans that are available to state employees.

With her proposal, Kennedy is firmly planting an early flag to the left of her four main rivals when it comes to healthcare at the state level. Also running for governor on the Democratic side are Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, former Sen. Mike Johnston, businessman Noel Ginsburg, and Boulder Congressman Jared Polis, among other lesser known candidates who have filed paperwork.

The move is aimed at offsetting high premiums some Coloradans pay when only one health insurer exists in certain parts of the state, especially mountain communities. Kennedy’s campaign says the plan won’t cost the state money since those who opt in would still pay health insurance premiums. They would pay less for more comprehensive coverage, according to the plan.

“The best solution to fill the gap in coverage, cost, and accessibility in Colorado is a public option, offering more affordable choices without additional taxes, especially for rural Colorado where options are currently so limited,” Kennedy says on her website.

The announcement comes just days after Lynne kicked off her own candidacy for governor, pledging to make healthcare the centerpiece of her campaign.

In an interview with The Colorado Independent, Lynne says she opposed a public option during the debate over the federal Affordable Care Act. At the state level, Lynne said getting more Coloradans covered could be done through outreach to the more than 100,000 eligible for Medicaid who aren’t already enrolled. “Being aggressive about making sure that we go out and get them signed up and we keep them in the system is really important,” Lynne said. “That doesn’t even require a change in legislation.”

Kennedy’s plan might require some heavy lifting, says Joe Hanel, who manages public policy outreach for the Colorado Health Institute. It would likely require buy-in from the state legislature, he says. 

More importantly, Colorado would also have to get federal approval from the administration of President Donald Trump to implement such a plan.

“No state has actually done this yet,” Hanel says, though some, like Nevada, have proposed similar ideas. Nevada’s legislature even passed a Medicaid-for-all bill but it was vetoed by the state’s Republican governor. Hanel says it’s an idea that’s just starting to get attention across the country this year.

One potential trouble spot could be those on Medicaid having trouble finding a doctor who accepts it since Medicaid pays providers in its network less than private insurers do, Hanel says. Some providers are reluctant to accept large numbers of Medicaid patients.

“There have been documented challenges with getting enough providers in certain areas who accept Medicaid,” Hanel says. Budget writers in Colorado, he adds, are always struggling with reimbursement rates for doctors.

Kennedy, however, believes increasing the number and diversifying those who are on Medicaid in Colorado will encourage more doctors to accept Medicaid patients, says her campaign spokeswoman Serena Woods.

Though sometimes confused, universal healthcare, universal coverage, a public option and single-payer systems are not the same. Under a single-payer system the government picks up the tab for medical bills. A state or nation can have universal health insurance coverage but still not have the government paying for it, or still have a mix of government and private insurers.

This week, Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders is expected to introduce a Medicare-for-all plan at the federal level. Polis supports a Medicare-for-all plan in Congress and has been “a strong leader for single payer healthcare on the federal level,” a spokesperson said.

Kennedy’s proposal is likely to make her a target for Republicans who have their own sprawling field of candidates vying to replace term-limited Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper. They have talked about ways to get Coloradans off of Medicaid rather than add more people onto the rolls.

Related: Here’s where Colorado’s GOP candidates for governor stand on health care

“Cary is leading the way to get affordable healthcare for all Coloradans,” says her spokeswoman Woods. “As governor, she will focus on doing whatever it takes to get it done.”  

Photo by Corey Hutchins