Obama team seeks ideas for health care reform in Jeffco

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By AJ Vicens

Everyone has complaints about the U.S. health care system, according to Jeffco Commissioner Kevin McCasky.

"But we have about 4 million different ideas on how to resolve it," he added, shortly after sitting through a community forum on health care reform Dec. 30. The forum was commissioned by President-elect Barack Obama's transition team and hosted by the West Chamber.

The next president has asked communities across the country to convene forums on health care reform and submit ideas to his transition team. The ideas will be digested by former South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle, Obama's pick to be the next secretary of health and human services and director of the White House Office of Health Reform.

Roughly 150 people attended the Dec. 30 meeting at the Sheraton Denver West Hotel in Lakewood. Many parts of the health care equation — insurance providers, doctors, legislators, county commissioners — were represented at each table, and each group answered a series of questions. They were then asked to present their top concerns and ideas to the crowd.

"The cost of insurance is so predominant at the beginning of life and the end of life," said Laurie Robinson, who works with the tobacco prevention initiative at the Jeffco Department of Health and Environment. "We'll address the preventative in between, but we also need to find a way to make it affordable to have healthy babies and keep them healthy, and address end-of-life issues, which can get touchy."

Mark Johnson, director of the Jeffco Department of Health and Environment, told the crowd that the U.S. health care system is fundamentally flawed.

"The biggest problem in the health system is it's not a health system — it's an illness system," Johnson said. "We're not focused on health; we're focused on illness."

Another suggestion from Johnson’s group is that employers should not be involved in health care coverage. He added that there needs to be a realignment of incentives to make people live healthier lives, Johnson said.

"Health is usually not important to individuals till they've lost it or they fear they're going to lose it," Johnson said.

"You should rely on coverage since you're a citizen, not if you're an employee " Johnson said. “We should have universal coverage with some sort of single-payer coverage system for everybody that's not tied to being employed, and the employer should not be shackled with the extra cost."

Universal health care was a key topic among many speakers, touching on an ideological divide that exists on the national level. Many people feel that the government should not be in the business of providing health care or unduly regulating health care companies, but others view health care as an obligation of the federal government and a fundamental right, and criticize a profit-oriented health care model.

McCasky, a Republican who isn't shy about discussing his free-market ideology, said after the meeting that health care is not a right. He said Obama's plan might be headed in the wrong direction.

"I'm very concerned that we may go to a very large government bureaucratic system that's not effective," McCasky said. "I think we need to focus our attention on allowing the private sector to resolve it, and allowing employers and certain health care industry professionals to really have a forum as well."

McCasky called the Dec. 30 forum "outstanding" but said it didn't include enough input from employers about the costs of providing health coverage.

"I don't think we heard realistically from any of the insurance companies who talk about the regulatory burden and the demands placed on them to provide certain benefits that nobody either uses or are too expensive."

He added that Obama's plan as discussed so far might be overlooking the "significant role" the government can play in protecting doctors and health care companies from "frivolous" lawsuits.

"From my vantage point, as a government official and from an ideological standpoint and being in government and working closely with the business community, there is a lot of areas that government can provide support and a safety net without nationalizing health care."

McCasky said the federal government should establish health savings accounts so people can manage their own medical needs and see how much it actually costs to have certain procedures done.

"I think that's a program I'd like to see Congress and the president support before we venture off into some national health care plan," McCasky said.

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com, and check www.columbinecourier.com for updates and breaking news.