The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election: Bernie Sanders and the Battle for Universal Healthcare in Colorado

Posted by: | Posted on: August 30, 2016

Bernie Sanders during this year’s Democratic National Convention. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

In his June non-concession concession speech, before
grimacing in support of Hillary Clinton at the Democratic convention, Bernie
Sanders called on his followers to take their “political revolution” to state
and local races. “I hope very much that many of you listening tonight are
prepared to engage at that level,” he said. It wasn’t clear what form the
continuing revolution would take—amid
allegations of dysfunction around Our Revolution,
his new organization—but last week Sanders
indicated at least one measure he was backing: a
little-noticed ballot initiative to bring universal health care to Colorado.

In November, Colorado’s voters will be asked whether
the state should increase taxes by $25 billion a year—nearly doubling the
entire state budget—for a program that would provide every resident with health
insurance. The proposal, which would become Amendment 69 in the Colorado
constitution, would direct the state to begin creating an entity called
ColoradoCare. This organization, with its own elected board, independent of the legislature, would then
implement the first statewide universal health-care regime in the country. Colorado would opt out of Obamacare—using a provision for state innovation
in Obamacare itself—and those receiving care through Medicare or the Veterans
Administration would keep the coverage they had. In exchange, Coloradans would be
hit with a steep income tax hike—10 percent divided between employees and
employers. But in the end, in theory, most people would end up paying less for
better coverage than they get now, and every state resident would be covered.

It’s not surprising that Sanders would support this
measure—he mentioned it
during his primary campaign, which made universal
medical coverage a signature issue, and he won Colorado. But ColoradoCare also
brings him into conflict, once again, with the Democratic powers that be.

Amendment 69 earned its place on the ballot thanks to a grassroots campaign that, among other tactics,
collected petition signatures at Sanders rallies. It’s no surprise that Republicans
oppose this new government program funded with a new tax, but many of
Colorado’s top Democratic politicians are also against it. The opposition group,
Coloradans for Coloradans, is co-chaired by a former Democratic governor, Bill
Ritter, and has
raised more than $3.5 million, much of it from
the medical industry,
compared to a few hundred thousand for the yes
campaign. (This is despite the ColoradoCare endorsement in
this year’s state Democratic Party platform.) Those
opponents who aren’t worried about the business models of the health care
establishment, or allergic to tax hikes, shudder at the consequences of searing
the whole
11-page proposed amendment into the state
constitution.

With the forces against them mounting, ColoradoCare
advocates are looking to Sanders as a chance to turn their fortunes. They
began calling on Sanders, once the primary was over, to turn his attention to
their cause. “As his presidential campaign comes to an end, his campaign for a
decent health care system can continue,” T.R. Reid, chairman of the
Colorado Foundation for Universal Health Care, told VICE at the time. Reid and
his team appear to have succeeded.

“It is absurd, it is beyond belief, that here in America
we remain the only major country on earth not to guarantee health care to all
people,” Sanders said during his rally in Vermont last Wednesday announcing Our
Revolution. “If that proposal can win in Colorado, I believe that idea will
spread around the country.” The Our Revolution
website
includes ColoradoCare among “our ballot initiatives,” alongside state measures
limiting the rights of corporations and abolishing the death penalty.

ColoradoCare is not the single-payer solution that many healthcare
reformers long for, since it keeps existing public insurance programs in place
and allows those who so choose to buy their own insurance if they want, instead
or in addition—though they still pay the hefty income tax. (That’s the stated
reason that kept Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein
from endorsing
Amendment 69 until she
changed her mind over the weekend.) It’s like public schools for medicine; part
of the deal is that some people will have to pay for services they don’t use so
all their neighbors get covered. Its appeal for progressives is far than
certain, however, because the program
may be unable to provide coverage for most abortions, thanks to an amendment to
the Colorado constitution that voters approved in 1984 banning state-funds for such
procedures. Whether the ban would apply to ColoradoCare’s para-governmental
entity remains unclear; it would need to be decided in court.

“Because Amendment 69 can’t provide guarantees to
affordable abortion access, it isn’t truly universal health care,” NARAL
Pro-Choice Colorado’s director, Karen Middleton,
told the Colorado Independent in June.

The very ballot-proposal process that makes Amendment 69
possible may be its undoing. ColoradoCare’s inventive structure itself is an
attempt to work around conservative-backed constitutional amendment that voters
passed in 1992 restricting the state legislature’s ability to increase taxes.
Such past amendments are cautionary tales. If voters approve Amendment 69,
that’s language nobody—not the legislature, not the program’s elected board,
not even voters—will have an easy time changing. These kinds of voter-suggested-and-approved
amendments can do brave things that legislators facing re-election might be too
careful to try, like the one in 2012 that legalized marijuana. But they can also
have unexpected consequences.

Then again, Americans are unusually prone to trepidation
when it comes to giving up a broken medical system. As Sanders has often pointed
out, universal healthcare is something just about every wealthy country in the
world got it long ago, and few of those countries’ citizens are complaining. But
now what hangs in the balance with Amendment 69 has to do with more than taxes
and healthcare. It’s a test of Sanders and his allies’ ability to fight—and
win—the local battles that they deem so important.

Nathan Schneider is the author of God in Proof and Thank You, Anarchy. His website is TheRowBoat.com, and he tweets here.

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