Ex-journalist leads state’s effort to flee Obamacare in favor of single-payer

Colorado Public Radio in early October aired a debate between ex-Washington Post reporter T.R. Reid and PR consultant Cody Belzley over a ballot initiative that would bring single-payer health insurance to the state. Before they went on the air, host Ryan Warner asked Reid, “What’s it like switching from journalist to advocate?”

It’s a question Reid gets a lot. The 30-year veteran of the Post and author of 11 books, including one about taxes due to be published in April, is now the unpaid chairman of the Colorado Foundation for Universal Health Care, and the public face and advocate for Proposition 69 on the Nov. 8 ballot.

The former journalist sees his move from reporter to advocate as fairly seamless–and logical. “What’s the difference,” he asks, “between a health reporter wanting everyone to get medical care, an education reporter believing every kid should have a good education, or a political reporter believing everyone has the right to vote? Does that make them advocates? … Reporters think it’s normal that 30 million people in the US have no health insurance. It’s wrong,” he told me. “Anyone who thinks America’s system is normal or right is incorrect.”

Reid’s health-care leap can be traced back to a sore shoulder. The ailment became a conceit to travel the world to see how he would be treated under different systems. The result was his 2009 book, “The Healing of America, A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care.” In the book, he dispels the myths of socialized medicine and discovers that, in the rest of the world, “the commitment to provide healthcare to everyone as a moral obligation.”

The book’s publication coincided with the debate over Obamacare, it became a bestseller, and Reid soon was in demand as a speaker. Today, Reid–the son of a Ford Motor Co. executive and a Princeton graduate–finds himself as the chief advocate for a Colorado plan that has drawn sharp opposition for being seen as anti-business. Colorado’s measure would make it the first state to drop Obamacare and the private insurance model on which it’s based and replace it with a tax-supported alternative that would cover everyone and bring coverage to the 360,000 Coloradans who remain uninsured. Right now, Reid says, many policies currently sold on Colorado’s Obamacare exchange carry deductibles of $4,000 and some as high as $9,000. Studies show that such high out-of-pocket costs often act as deterrents, even to necessary care. 

Owen Perkins, communications director for the Colorado campaign, calls Reid the “superstar, the celebrity that has attracted activists and the media like nobody else has … He gets people to act, speak, and donate, and he inspires me to keep at it.”

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Perkins says Reid has helped sharpen the group’s image and zero in on target audiences, despite a meager budget for the campaign of about $800,000, most of which has come in the form of 4,000 donations averaging $160. That compares to the $4.5 million budget for the opposition, Coloradans for Coloradans. Some of the country’s biggest insurers, Anthem, UnitedHealthcare, and Kaiser Permanente, which have the most to lose if the measure succeeds, have given $2 million. Hospitals, PhRMA, and Cigna also contributed, according to CleanSlateNow.org, which tracks campaign contributions in the state.

Reid said he is undeterred by the big money flowing into Colorado. He speaks to any group, no matter the size or the location, and once drove through a blizzard to Cortez in the southwest part of the state to appear before the League of Women Voters. He accepts no speaking fees if they are offered. At a recent debate in Grand Junction sponsored by Club 20, an association of businesses, communities, and counties in western Colorado, Reid told the audience that if one of his neighbors was in pain or too sick to go to work or school, he’d like to help that person get healthcare. One woman in the audience stood up and shouted, “Not my responsibility.” Half of the 700 people in attendance cheered. Reid told the woman, “I don’t agree with you. It is my responsibility. I am my brother’s keeper.” The other half cheered. “That’s the split in the state,” he says. “Half don’t want to pay for other people’s healthcare. I say they are already paying for it through Medicaid and the insurance system.”

It’s not clear whether Reid’s group will prevail on Election Day. On a good day, state Senator Irene Aguilar thinks his side can win by 50.5 percent. On a bad day “we may break 40 percent.” Constant advertising reminding voters of the $25 billion tax increase is hard to fight, especially with little money. And even more progressive residents who believe people need health insurance may not support Prop 69. Ellen Daehnick, who owns a small business in Denver and is a former board member of the board of Colorado’s Obamacare exchange, says she is skeptical of the numbers and won’t support the measure.

But even if the campaign loses, it has softened the ground for another assault. Reid says for the next round–should they lose–he’d change the plan design. Seniors need a bigger exemption from the taxes that will pay for the new system; a small deductible makes sense; and the governing board would be restructured. But above all, the campaign won’t start until there’s $150,000 in the bank. “We started with no money. It’s amazing what we’ve accomplished. I wanted Colorado to be first.” But if Michigan, Oregon, Minnesota, or Washington, where there are serious ongoing discussions of ballot initiatives for single-payer plans, manages to pass something first, Reid is okay with that.  “Obamacare is not the answer,” he tells me. “The answer will come from the states.”

In 2017, the Affordable Care Act allows states to begin experimenting with other insurance arrangements. Says Reid, “I will happily help.”

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for CJR's Covering the Health Care Fight. She also blogs for Health News Review and the Center for Health Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.