We can help reduce the strain of skyrocketing health care costs or a lack of health insurance. More than 750,000 Coloradans do not have health insurance. And while this largely reflects a national problem, the state shores up the safety net and public health systems.
Medicaid is the main health program serving low-income families. Colorado’s Medicaid program provides relatively good coverage – but only for those who qualify. The problem is that far too few qualify. Colorado’s eligibility requirements are among the toughest in the nation, and its reimbursement rates are so low that no HMO participates in the program anymore and fewer and fewer private practitioners do either.
Because Medicaid eligibility is so limited, thousands of low-income working families have no option for care other than overburdened community health centers, local health departments, rural and specialty clinics, and public and private hospitals – providers that have other important missions such as trauma care, immunizations, disease prevention, and, in the post-9/11 world, national security responsibilities.
We don’t save money when we cut these services. People who can’t pay to see a doctor often wait until inexpensive problems develop into expensive problems – and then they show up in emergency rooms, which cost much more than seeing a doctor when the problem starts. In the meantime, they are likely to be less productive at work and may risk the health of co-workers.
This is as true for those with mental illness as it is for those with physical illness. When people can’t get mental health or substance abuse services, they often end up in costly emergency rooms or, worse yet, on the street or in jail.