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Health care: It's our problem

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Let's see, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama can't seem to agree on health care, even though they don't really disagree that much, either.

As for the Republicans, they'd rather spend $150 billion next year in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Iran, or anywhere else but on health care at home.

In other words, regardless of what might be promised in this polarizing election season, counting on the federal government to solve our health care quagmire soon is probably a pipe dream.

The solutions must begin closer to home, which is why our nearest Democratic state legislators, Sen. John Morse and Rep. Mike Merrifield, helped arrange a town-hall gathering called "Spotlight on Health Care" last weekend at Manitou Springs City Hall. But they didn't know what to expect when the forum was set for 8 a.m. Saturday, a much better time for being lazy than venturing out to rehash a much-discussed issue.

Instead, about 35 people showed up. And they were so engaged, they didn't come close to finishing an oversized box of fresh doughnuts. Perhaps they felt guilty about eating anything unhealthy, given the morning's sobering message.

As Merrifield said at the outset, "This is personal for me." He talked about how, after he battled throat and neck cancer last year, his doctor determined that the treatments and other bills would have cost Merrifield a cool $250,000 if not for insurance.

Morse, serving on the Legislature's Joint Budget Committee, talked about efforts to address health care issues. But he admitted that "everybody needs money," and even though health care is "a huge priority" for lawmakers, the next state budget can't realistically make huge inroads.

The problem starts with having 792,000 Coloradans 17 percent of the state without insurance, more than the combined population of El Paso, Teller and Pueblo counties. For those who do have insurance, the one-two punch of inflated deductibles and inadequate coverage deters many from going to the doctor.

Other statistics stand out: In 1987, health insurance cost 7.7 percent of the average Coloradan's annual income. By 2005, that had jumped to 19 percent. Also, 69.5 percent of those people without insurance are in working families.

So this isn't just about unemployed people who live in poverty. It's about people with jobs who can't afford insurance and are one illness or accident away from financial ruin.

If all those numbers sound boring, they shouldn't. We won't start coming up with real solutions until enough people realize just how dire the problem is.

There is movement toward change. It started in 2006 with the state Senate creating a commission for health care reform, which has just made recommendations to the Legislature. Options range from expanding public programs and helping make coverage more affordable to universal health insurance, which is closer to what you've heard the Democrats discussing nationally.

It all sounds so big, and government is slow to make big changes. We also know that the powerful insurance companies will oppose any major reform. Somebody has to take charge at some point.

After more than 90 minutes at this forum, Dr. Randall Bjork asked to speak. Bjork, a neurologist and president of the El Paso County Medical Society, calmly informed the group that, if every person in the county paid $100 a month, local doctors would offer coverage and care to everyone. The doctors would even invest on the front end to start such a program.

"We'd probably get sued for collusion," Bjork said, "but we're ready to do this. We're ready to take control of the situation."

Someone would have to figure out how to get the hospitals on board, but that might not be so difficult. The point is, if a group as strong and large as the medical profession feels the time has come for change, that's encouraging.

You could tell Bjork's comments stunned Merrifield and Morse.

"I have to say, this is the first I've heard of this," Merrifield said, and the tone of their voices made it clear he and Morse would take the idea seriously.

Just one town-hall meeting, with 35 people in the room, but all great ideas have to start somewhere. You never know.

routon@csindy.com

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