Trio of former govs: ‘medical Taj Mahal,’ integration to save money and Medicaid costs ‘running off a cliff’

By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon

Former Gov. Dick Lamm told a gathering of health care experts recently that he’s weary of the slow progress the U.S. is making in providing universal health care.

“I think it’s an embarrassment that in Colorado, as well as in the nation, we still don’t cover everybody with basic health care,” Lamm said during a session with fellow former governors at the Hot Issues in Health Care conference hosted by the Colorado Health Institute earlier this month in Colorado Springs.

Lamm, a former three-term governor in the 1970s and ’80s, said he can recall first trying to cover the uninsured back when he was a state lawmaker in 1967.

He said he’s watched “with great frustration” as the health care infrastructure has ballooned with “too many hospital beds and too much duplication.”

Caring professionals try to do a good job, but still we spend too much on the “frail elderly” while failing to provide the basics for everyone else. Lamm called our system “well meaning, but wrong” and blasted the enormous Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora as a “medical Taj Mahal.”

“It’s good news that we’re getting additional people covered, but I don’t think our model is anything to brag about,” Lamm said.

For former Gov. Bill Ritter, the need to cut health care costs is central. Still, Ritter said it’s a “false choice” to tell people they will either get quality or low costs. In fact, Ritter said integrated care that blends physical and behavioral health will save significant sums of money.

He also said that covering more people, while containing costs, actually will save health dollars over time.

“The good news is that states have a variety of things they can do,” Ritter said.

Former Gov. Bill Owens and Lamm sometimes team up to teach classes at the University of Denver. And Owens filled the role he often does with Lamm.

“I would respectfully disagree with a couple of things he said. I would suggest that the U.S. has one of the best health care systems in the world,” said Owens. “It’s not efficient, but it’s really good.”

Owens said that if statisticians adjust for the very high rates of violent crime and obesity that certainly harm people’s health in the U.S., our outcomes are not nearly as bad as they initially appear to be compared to other countries.

“I think we have a pretty good system. There are certainly things we should do,” Owens said.

He did note that 20 percent of Coloradans are now on Medicaid and while he said he does not oppose Medicaid, he is concerned about the demands on the public for all the health care dollars we’ll need to spend.

“We’re running off a cliff,” Owens said of the health spending that now consumes more than one-third of the state’s budget. “There are equally good people who want K-12 and higher ed (spending too),” Owens said.

“There are going to need to be some compromises as to what’s perfect and what’s possible.”

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