Chronic disease patients get sympathy, little else

By Richard Haugh

Health care reform was on the minds of patient advocates for several chronic health conditions at a southeast Denver forum on Tuesday night. But it was paying for that reform that occupied the minds of the two legislators who listened to their concerns.

Rep. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, and Sen. Suzanne Williams, D-Aurora, heard impassioned pleas for state help from representatives of the Lupus Foundation of Colorado, the Colorado chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, the Hep C Connection, and the Colorado chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) at a forum at the Eloise May Library.

The conditions the advocates represent are varied, but their message was the same: Chronic health conditions take a huge financial and personal toll — and the state should help.

The cost to treat seven common chronic medical conditions in Colorado — cancer, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, stroke, mental illnesses and lung disease — was $3.4 billion in 2003, according to the Milken Institute, a Santa Monica, Calif. research firm. Another $13.1 billion was tied to loss of productivity and workplace absenteeism.

Early intervention can change that, said Nita Brown, head of NAMI Colorado.

“If the Legislature can help us reduce these costs, then we need that help,” she said. The Colorado Chronic Care Collaborative, whose members represents 1.2 million chronically ill Coloradans, estimates that early screening and preventive measures could cut the cost of chronic illnesses by $14.7 billion by 2023.

Advocates called on the Legislature to address long-term care policies, removing limitations on insurance coverage, broadening coverage of psychiatric medications, and rolling back cuts to the budgets of preventive and health-education programs.

That will be challenging, said Todd. Already Colorado stands in the bottom tier of states in tax revenue per capita.

“We’re even further behind in those areas we were already behind in, like funding for mental health treatment,” she said.

More funds aren’t likely to turn up anytime soon. The 2009-2010 budget of the Department of Health Care Policy and Financing, which administers the state’s Medicaid and indigent care programs, is slated to be cut by $115 million.

TABOR — the Taxpayer Bill of Rights enacted in the early 1990s — is handcuffing the state’s ability to deal with these issues in an economic downturn, said Williams. But significant reform to constitutional fiscal restraints such as TABOR isn’t likely to come in 2010, an election year, she said.