Reading historical articles about the flu of 1918 and our dealings with a similar pandemic in 2020 reminds me of Bill Murray’s movie “Groundhog Day.” Wear a mask? Don’t wear a mask? Open my business? Keep it closed and we pay the price later? Testing? No testing, so get on with it? Visit grandma? Don’t visit? Limit the economy? Or open it back up? Survival of the fittest? Or helping your fellow man and community?
COVID-19, like the Spanish flu, is an unprecedented health emergency for the country, the state, and our local communities, with implications for Colorado’s budget-impacted local residents, patients and health care providers alike.
As a member of the Western and Rural Colorado Health Care Coalition, or WaRCHCC, I have worked for more than three years pushing for grassroots changes to our health care and health systems. We have seen some significant results through educating, testifying, lobbying and advocating. Now, the virus threatens to wipe out those hard-fought improvements.
One WaRCHCC member remembers during the 2009 Great Recession the anguish in the Colorado legislature’s Joint Budget Committee as huge across-the-board cuts were made to almost every program that the state managed or funded. Little if anything was spared. No program was exempt and any new legislation that required even a dollar of spending would never see the light of day for years.
The Joint Budget Committee now faces a $3.3 billion shortfall, well beyond what we saw from the Great Recession in any one year. We are concerned the biggest potential hit will be to Medicaid when Coloradans need health care access the most.
With more than 420,000 Coloradans having already lost their jobs, and with it, likely their health coverage too, this increase in unemployment will create new and unprecedented need for Colorado’s Medicaid program.
Medicaid is particularly important for rural citizens, with unemployment rates that are generally higher and less employer-sponsored health insurance coverage because of the costs. Twenty percent of Garfield County residents (similar to many counties in western and rural areas) were uninsured before COVID, and rural health care providers, hospitals and clinics treat a higher percentage of Medicaid patients. Any cuts to Medicaid will have a huge impact on our rural communities.
State lawmakers should not cut Medicaid or defund a health care system in the middle of the greatest pandemic since 1918, much less cut education, older adult services, and other vital services. But just like the 2009 recession, there are limited options.
There is, however, one option to temporarily increase state revenue to address this emergency through Colorado’s TABOR amendment. Under TABOR, the Colorado General Assembly can pass a temporary emergency tax reform measure. This could be used to provide emergency relief to 95% of Coloradans through slightly lower income taxes while asking households with yearly incomes above $250,000 to pay a little more. This would not only help Coloradans struggling during this health emergency by giving them a tax break, but raise revenue to avoid some of the most damaging cuts to programs and services.
Two-thirds of the General Assembly needs to vote to declare the public health emergency and pass this temporary emergency reform that would expire on Nov. 30. We cannot wait for Washington to decide whether they will provide financial relief to states, as we have but a few weeks to pass our state budget.
Now is the time to use this TABOR mechanism to address this health emergency. The roughly $600 million this would raise in addition to using state reserves would help minimize the damage we will otherwise see from this emergency in rural Colorado. Without this measure, we will see deep cuts to or even closures of rural schools, colleges, hospitals, health clinics, and the list goes on. These cuts will put rural Coloradans’ lives in jeopardy and prolong the economic calamity we face from COVID. Our lawmakers cannot and should not let that happen.
Bob Shivley, of Silt, is a former business owner, teacher/librarian, driver and co-coordinator of the Western and Rural Colorado Health Care Coalition.