As a physician, not a day goes by that the rising cost of health care isn’t forcing hardships onto my patients.
For some of my patients, an office co-pay means they need to cut back on something else. I have patients who try to get out of undergoing some tests because they cost too much. I’ve spent time with some families trying to find more affordable prescription drugs because their insurance company no longer covers a medication I had originally prescribed as the best choice for their injury or illness. I have patients who quietly split their pills or delay going to see a doctor because they’re terrified what their medical bills would be.
Again and again, I see hardworking Coloradans being forced to make the difficult choice between their health and falling behind financially, or even going broke.
As I think of my patients and the challenges they have paying for expensive health care, I am more convinced that Colorado needs a public option.
A public option can significantly reduce health care costs, making health care available and affordable to more people. At the same time, a public option would force profit-driven insurance corporations to reduce their costs to compete.
The world we live in, devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic, makes the case for a public option clear.
Because of the pandemic recession, around 500,000 Coloradans are currently at risk of losing their employer-provided health insurance. As of 2018, more than 417,000 people in Colorado lacked health insurance.
Meanwhile, health care costs keep going up. Since 2010, average family premiums have increased 55% nationwide. In that same period, wages only went up around 27% while inflation went up 19%.
In January, more than 800 prescription drugs became more expensive, the most in many years. The average cost increase was 4.6%, double the rate of inflation in 2020. Humira, used for rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis, went up 21% between 2019 and January.
Insulin costs for Colorado patients rose 262% in the past 10 years. Colorado in 2019 was the first of 12 states to implement a cap on the copayments that some insurers can charge consumers for insulin.
Colorado’s cap, however, does nothing for the majority of people with employer-sponsored plans or those without insurance coverage. According to the state chapter of Type 1 International, an insulin access advocacy group, only 3% of Colorado patients with Type 1 diabetes under 65 could benefit from the cap.
In addition, Colorado hospital prices went up 71% between 2009 and 2018.
Sadly, skyrocketing costs are not translating to better health outcomes for Coloradans. Americans continue to see poorer health outcomes and lower life expectancy compared with people in other developed countries, even though we spend more on health care: Each American spends more than $11,000 a year on health care, by far the most of any wealthy country, and nearly twice what Germans spend.
Things are expected to only get worse: Health care costs nationwide are projected to rise faster in the next seven years than the period between 2016 and 2018.
To control costs, Coloradans deserve a public option, which a 2019 state report projected would “result in plans available in 2022 that are about 9-18% less expensive than otherwise available plans.” That would help more people get the care they need with less financial pain.
Health care can make the difference between life and death. Uninsured Coloradans, including those who’ve lost their jobs and their employer-provided health care, are more vulnerable to sickness and poorer outcomes, for everything from COVID-19 to chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart illnesses.
Conversely, individuals who have health coverage are more likely to get the care they need when they need it. From my experience, I know that people who can see a doctor, get treatment and manage illnesses are more likely to become healthier and live more productive lives. They can better care for themselves and their families, and more likely to give back to their communities.
By reining in runaway health-care costs through the public option, we can protect all Coloradans, especially low-income families, underserved communities and under-represented populations.
Legislation for a public option, House Bill 1232, has been introduced in the Colorado legislature. Policymakers and legislators should pass it without delay.
Dr. Claudia Panzer is an endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism specialist in Denver and a member of the Colorado chapter of the Committee to Protect Medicare.
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