Beyond Statistics: How Inequity Holds Colorado Back

How does inequity hold us back from ensuring all Coloradans lead healthy lives?

This was the central, challenging question at the heart of this year’s Colorado Health Foundation Symposium. The annual event always offers up plenty of insights, information, and time for introspection. This year was no different.

The week’s speakers drove home an important reality: Inequity affects health care in ways beyond what statistics and data can show. Poor health outcomes, medical debtinsurance coverage, and so much more… all shaped by growing inequity.

A week later, here are three things I’m still chewing on.

“If you can’t talk about power, good luck talking about inequity, because the game is rigged.”

Eric Liu, founder of Citizen University, didn’t mince words. He fired up the crowd with his theories about power and how citizens should be seizing it to ward off inequity. Liu’s premise rests on three truths: Power compounds; it justifies itself; and it is infinite.

Conditions like rising income inequality mean it’s an opportune time for a resurgence of citizen power. As proof, Liu highlighted Seattle’s and SeaTac’s efforts at raising the minimum wage. According to Liu, activists were successful because they spread the message that “raising the wage is not a zero-sum game, where businesses lose out when workers win more.”

In this case, reality has matched rhetoric, as Seattle has seen low unemployment and a “restaurant industry that can barely keep up its own growth because of ‘middle-out’ economics.”

Liu’s call to action resonates here in Colorado, where our citizens, led by groups like the Bell, believe in a similar message about a fair wage. What will our next “middle-out” economic moment be?

“Listening is a leadership strategy, particularly if you’re leading for equity.”

Thanks to the National Equity Project, we learned techniques to combat “implicit bias,” which are the ways our subconscious, primitive brain categorizes and judges people and situations.

Though it’s unintentional, implicit bias can lead to health inequities (as well as others). Our facilitators challenged us to think about how these subconscious attitudes toward race, income, age, and gender might factor into the equation, and then we practiced ways to disrupt them.

My favorite technique was engaged listening, because I could see clearly how it applies to our work. As the Bell continues to solicit community feedback to augment our quantitative research, be it on health, two-generation strategies, the child care cliff effect, or opportunity in our state, how can we ensure we are at our most engaged?

“The time is ripe for fresh new thinking.”

Policy wonks love policy discussions, so I found myself happily immersed in the federal health update given by Thorn Run Partners. Two takeaways have stuck with me: First, citizen activism — and outrage — truly made a difference in the defeat of the “skinny repeal” vote in the Senate; second, after spending an hour deconstructing different proposals to modify the Affordable Care Act and the possible outcomes, the upshot is everyone is ready for some new, bipartisan ideas on health care reform.

Attendees asked tough questions about our national political appetite. Will we see a national reinsurance program to bolster the individual insurance market? When and how will we take on rising health costs? Will the notion of a single payer or universal coverage system finally gain traction? Already Colorado has been courageous enough to have some of these discussions, but persistent inequities demand we keep trying.