SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Voters in Colorado may make their state the first to have a publicly financed health system that provides coverage for most Coloradans. John Daley from Colorado Public Radio reports.
JOHN DALEY, BYLINE: On a brisk morning, an ambulance pulls up in front of a downtown Denver office tower. A team roles the gurney out as a doctor looks on.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I think the patient is going to make it.
DALEY: This is not a medical emergency. Instead, it's a bit of political theater. On the gurney is no patient. It's boxes and boxes of pages bearing signatures.
DALEY: They're being delivered to Colorado's secretary of state's office. The group ColoradoCareYES gathered more than 100,000 signatures to put the universal health system on the ballot next fall. Ken Connell is a volunteer.
KEN CONNELL: Our current system gouges us financially. Too many people don't have access until they're too far along the sick path.
DALEY: The plan applies to most people not on Medicare or TRICARE, the military health system. Under the plan, Coloradans can still pick their own providers, but the new system will pick up all the bills. And there will be no deductibles and fewer and smaller co-pays.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) It don't matter where you're from.
DALEY: In nearby Civic Center Park, supporters gather to hear Democratic Senator Irene Aguilar. She's an MD as well as a lawmaker.
IRENE AGUILAR: This is not going to be an easy fight.
DALEY: Aguilar says Obamacare has been good slicing Colorado's uninsured rate in half. But she says many are still uninsured while others struggle to pay their premiums and out-of-pocket costs.
AGUILAR: And that's sort of the idea behind ColoradoCare, is to have everybody paying in but everybody having access to health care that will keep them healthy, keep them working, keep them contributing to our society.
DALEY: Here's the payment proposal. Colorado employers - a nearly 7 percent payroll tax; employees - 3-plus percent of their gross pay; the self-employed will need to pony up 10 percent of their annual net income. All in all, supporters say the tax hikes will race around $25 billion, but they argue it will save most residents and employers money in the long run.
MICHELLE LUEKE: Twenty-five billion dollars - it rivals the entire state budget.
DALEY: That's Michelle Lueke with the Colorado Health Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank.
LUEKE: And I don't think that there have been many, if any, times when Colorado has bit off something that big.
DALEY: That price tag scares health economist Linda Gorman. She's with the Colorado-based Independence Institute, a free-market think tank.
LINDA GORMAN: The finances don't work.
DALEY: Gorman points to Vermont. Its state legislature passed a universal health care bill a few years ago, but the governor pulled the plug after ballooning cost estimates forced him to admit the state couldn't afford the plan he'd championed. Gorman also worries the Colorado proposal would put too much power in a 21-member governing board, which would have taxing authority but she says no controls to ensure transparency.
GORMAN: These people have way too much unaccountable power.
DALEY: Others worry it would mean losing jobs. Tammy Niederman is with a trade group for health insurance brokers. She says the system would put 4,000 brokers out of work. And she says it would lead to longer waits for care.
TAMMY NIEDERMAN: This will inevitably ration care. There's no way to put in a universal system that doesn't do that.
DALEY: The state's insurers and its hospital association haven't yet taken a position. Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper is also reserving judgment.
JOHN HICKENLOOPER: A lot of people argue that it's going to cost a lot more. A lot of people say it's going to be the salvation and lower the costs. Let's find out the numbers say.
DALEY: Meanwhile, the state is already starting to see signs vast amounts of money will be spent from vested interests both inside and outside the state. For NPR News, I'm John Daley.
SIMON: And that story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, Colorado Public Radio and Kaiser Health News.
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