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Heath’s health plan heartburn for smokers

Tamie Meck

Colorado Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rollie Heath unveiled a plan Wednesday to create the $2.57 billion, 10-year health care initiative.And he wants cigarette smokers to pay for it.If the ballot question is passed by voters this November, the initiative will help provide affordable health insurance for Colorado’s workers, help senior citizens pay for prescription drugs, and provide pre-natal and well-baby care. Funding will come from a tax of $1 for every pack of cigarettes sold in the state.Heath called the initiative “an investment. I think it’s the right investment at the right time for Colorado’s health,” he said.Heath, a former small business owner, sees transportation, jobs, education, growth and health care as the major issues in the state. “Health care, certainly in the last year, has become the No. 1 concern.” According to Heath, the initiative will benefit an estimated 250,000 Coloradans.The initiative will provide the following:-$1 billion ($100 million annually for 10 years) to increase the number of small businesses that provide health insurance to employees.Colorado citizens have been “hit hard with the reality that health care premiums are out of control,” Heath said. In Colorado in 2001, said Heath, 46 companies, covering 81,000 employees, dropped their health care coverage. Premiums in his own business rose by 25 percent per year in the past four years, said Heath.He seeks to reverse that trend. The initiative will give small businesses of 50 employees or less that pay at least half of their employees’ health care premiums an incentive to provide health insurance by providing up to $1,000 per employee per year, said Heath. -$1 billion ($100 million annually) to make prescription drugs more affordable. Seniors who make $12,000 to $24,000 a year will be eligible to receive up to $1,000 annually, through use of a debit card, to cover prescription drug costs. They must purchase drugs through a pharmacy enrolled in the program. Assets will not be considered for eligibility.-$300 million ($30 million annually) to increase the percentage of pregnant women who receive prenatal care and health care services for babies until age 2. Income for participating women will have to fall within a certain percentage of the poverty level, said Heath.Studies link prenatal care, particularly if received in the first trimester, to the birth of healthy babies. Most women who don’t receive this care are considered poor.”These are the people that really fall between the cracks,” said Heath. The money invested in the care of pregnant mothers, and in their young children, will more than pay for itself by decreasing the amount the state pays in their health care.-$270 million ($27 million annually) for administrative costs and future health care initiatives.”I think these are excellent first steps,” said Heath. “It’s not a panacea, and it will not solve every problem.” At an average of $3.18 per pack, Colorado currently has one of the lowest costs in the nation for cigarettes, second only to North Carolina, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. If Colorado’s tax passes, it will jump to 16th in the nation in cost per pack. Cigarette taxes in Colorado haven’t risen since 1986 when the state imposed a 20 percent excise tax. Nor is there a current sales tax on cigarettes. This July, several states implemented a tax similar to Heath’s initiative, and several others are considering a tax. States that already impose a cigarette tax have experienced, in every case, a drop in cigarette consumption. In 2001, 312 million packs of cigarettes were sold in Colorado. Based on those statistics, Heath said sales should drop to 257 million packs per year.While the dollars collected drop, so do cigarette-related health costs, he said. Heath said that his initiative is “very, very different” than a similar measure that failed in 1994. That plan didn’t clearly spell out how the money would be spent. “I think voters are entitled to know exactly what we will do with their money,” he said. This initiative provides “very tangible things” for the people of Colorado.More than that, said Heath, voters likely rejected the initiative “because health care wasn’t the hot issue that it is today.”While the tax will burden smokers, “this is not aimed at the smoker,” said Heath. The reality is that people who smoke jeopardize their health, he said, and eventually someone has to pay for their health care. “This is a free society and they’re welcome to smoke. Let’s let them pay for health care at the same time.”


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