The Denver Post

Perspectiv­e: Creating a public option would be a mistake, writes Wellington Webb, former mayor of Denver

- By Wellington Webb Wellington Webb was the mayor of Denver for 12 years beginning in 1991.

Health care is a complicate­d issue, and there is no magic silver bullet that will address all the concerns Colorado communitie­s face when it comes to accessing high-quality, comprehens­ive care at prices that won’t break the bank. While I certainly understand the need to lower costs and improve access, I do not agree with some lawmakers in the state legislatur­e that the best way to do that is by attempting to create a massive, state government-run health insurance system.

In fact, I believe that such a system will only serve to increase the disparitie­s facing some of Colorado’s most vulnerable communitie­s while massively increasing costs and concentrat­ing too much power in Colorado’s insurance commission­er’s office. Rather than taking Colorado down this perilous road, lawmakers should instead work to improve upon our current health insurance and health care system to reduce the barriers that are preventing folks from getting the care they need when they need it.

While I served in the Colorado General Assembly, I was the lead sponsor for three insurance bills. One bill mandated that insurance companies offer group health policies that included coverage for alcoholism; another bill mandated these companies must provide coverage for complicati­ons in pregnancy; and lastly a bill to ensure coverage for drug treatment. These bills passed, but we all know that’s only half of the battle, and I was in for a rude awakening.

I left the legislatur­e to work for President Jimmy Carter. When I later returned to state government as executive director of Regulatory Agencies, which includes the Division of Insurance which is run by the insurance commission­er, I was angry to learn none of the insurance legislatio­n that was approved years before had been implemente­d. This is a clear example of what can go wrong when a non-elected person, like the insurance commission­er, has too much authority. The same is true with the current proposal that would give the insurance commission­er too much power over our health insurance system. It is a bad idea.

Sadly, the health care system here in Colorado and across the country is riddled with disparitie­s that impact the quality of and access to care for racial and ethnic minority communitie­s. This has become all the more evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to data from the state health department, Black Coloradans are dying from COVID-19 at a disproport­ionately high rate while communitie­s of color, in general, are seeing higher rates of infection relative to their share of the population.

Rather than addressing these disparitie­s, a state-run public health care option would only exacerbate them.

In these underserve­d communitie­s, hospitals often fill a vital role in providing access to health care services that residents may not otherwise be able to find. Threatenin­g the ability of these facilities to keep their doors open by arbitraril­ly reducing reimbursem­ent rates under a new state health insurance plan would put already vulnerable Coloradans at greater risk. Increased hospital closures, which could be an indirect result of the state government option, would also deal a devastatin­g economic blow to Colorado’s small towns and rural communitie­s.

On top of that, the state government option would likely fail to deliver on the promise of lowering costs. In Washington, the only state in the nation to impose such a health care system, premiums have increased instead of decreased, with some coming in at nearly 30% more expensive than what was available through the ACA’s marketplac­e last year. Is that really the future Colorado legislator­s want for our state?

Bottom line, pushing through an untested, ill-advised state government-run option for health insurance doesn’t serve the best interests of Coloradans, particular­ly those already facing major health care disparitie­s. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel — and doing it less successful­ly — state legislator­s should look for opportunit­ies to build upon what is working in our current system while passing more practical policy measures to address what isn’t. Ultimately, that’s the right way to improve health care.

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