Q&A: Sen. Rhonda Fields says access and affordability are Colorado’s biggest health care issues

Sen. Rhonda Fields has served in Colorado’s Legislature for ten years, having been a representative for six years and a senator for four. After getting involved in politics because of gun violence, Fields became active in health policy and now sits as the Chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.

She represents Senate District 29, which includes Aurora, Bennett, Byers, and Strasburg. The Assistant Majority Leader shared her thoughts on the COVID-19 crisis, health equity, and bipartisanship in a Q&A with State of Reform.

 

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Eli Kirshbaum: Can you briefly describe your history in the Legislature and your experience with health care policy?

Sen. Rhonda Fields: “Initially, I was involved in a lot of criminal justice policy and legislation, and then I decided that I wanted to work upstream. For me, working upstream wasn’t working with people who have already committed desperate acts. That meant: what can I do to make sure that every child has a head start, a fresh start, and a healthy start as it relates to their adulthood? 

So that’s how I got into public policy as it relates to health care, because I think it starts early in reference to nutrition and the understanding of the appropriate food to eat. Understanding diet and nutrition, and those kinds of things before you get into fried foods and all that kind of stuff that you see in urban communities. So that’s what happened. I went from criminal justice to working upstream as it relates to creating policies to address, I would say, affordable access to health care. I just wanted to work upstream and in a different venue and I felt like health care was the best approach for that.”

EK: Can you describe  any significant health care accomplishments the Legislature has made during your tenure?

RF: “In my district, we have the privilege of having so many hospitals, and so many different medical providers from dentistry to occupational therapists to mental health professionals, all around my neighborhood. All of them asked me to step up and address some of the issues that they were confronted with. This happened after Obama passed Obamacare, and before that, mental health was not considered a part of physical health — how do we integrate issues that relate to physical health to mental health? It just kind of peaked my interest in reference to what I can do to expand my interest beyond gun violence to helping people not do desperate things. There’s got to be other resources. Restorative justice, mental health, when you feel isolated, or you feel desperate, are you going to commit suicide or homicide? So that’s what kind of shifted my interest.

I would say the bills that I’m most proud of as it relates to health care, my very first piece of legislation in 2011, was to ensure physical activity for every elementary school child. Because what has happened over the course of time is we’ve focused so much on the core curriculum that kids don’t get the opportunity to exercise. We ensured that there’s going to be thirty minutes of physical activity in our elementary schools.

So that’s one bill that I ran, and there are many others as it relates to telehealth, and as it relates to expanding Medicaid. Health is not just all about medicine. It’s about the environment, it’s about where you live, it’s about how you socialize, it’s about your community, it’s about your housing, it’s about how you’re employed. All of those have a ripple effect as it relates to our society, and I thought that was the focus and the attention I wanted to give.”

EK: What is Colorado’s biggest health care issue right now?

RF: “I think it’s access and affordability. I think our biggest challenge is about access, affordability, and disparities would be the third. What COVID-19 has done is really put a spotlight on people who are poor, people who are black, people who are brown — they are dying at a higher percentage than others. And a lot of that has to do with pre-existing conditions like hypertension. I live in Colorado, so we have a lot of folks that have asthma because we are at a higher altitude. Black and brown people suffer at a higher rate as it relates to asthma. We also have a higher rate of people who are living with diabetes. 

All these kinds of pre-existing conditions really have an impact in our community as it relates to treatment when they come down with COVID. If you have asthma, with COVID, it attacks your lungs. If you have diabetes, it attacks your lungs and you can’t breathe. You have to be on a ventilator, and once you’re on a ventilator, that causes other conditions. Some people are able to survive that, and other people lose their lives after that.

So when I talk about health care disparities, I think that in our state, we need to have a health equity plan. We know that there are pre-existing disparities in black and brown communities — and I’m including indigenous people — and we don’t even have a plan to address that. I believe health care is a fundamental right. So we need to have a plan. If we know that we have these chronic disparities and chronic diseases in our community, then what’s the plan? We can’t wait for another epidemic for us to be exposed to the same data and the science that we already have. We need to have a pathway moving forward to address health care disparities in every corner of the state of Colorado.”

EK: What are your biggest priorities for the upcoming session? Is there any specific legislation?

RF: “I have two. One of them I just shared with you. It says the state of Colorado needs to have a health equity plan. So that means they would need to come up with recommendations and policies to say that we’re no longer going to have blinders on as it deals with these chronic diseases that affect communities of color or poor people. So that’s one of the policies, is to have a state equity plan.

The other plan that I have is that because of COVID-19, far too many of our kids are falling behind. Not everyone has reliable access to the internet, many of our students are missing as it relates to remote learning. Some of them are having to go to work because mom and dad’s hours are reduced. I believe that we’re losing a generation because of the health care crisis that has been created by COVID-19. So my other priority is to establish a children and youth act for the state of Colorado that really looks at what remedies and recommendations we can suggest to catch our kids up who are the furthest behind because of remote learning.”

EK: Are you optimistic that both parties can work together to pass needed health care legislation this session?

RF: “I’ve been serving for ten years, and the majority of the bills that we sponsor in the House and in the Senate in the state of Colorado are bipartisan. It’s a high percentage, it’s over ninety percent. In my perception in what we do in the state of Colorado is that we do work across the aisle — and you have to. Because you have to learn how to count votes. And to count your votes, no matter what party you’re in, you have to work together. It’s like we have to learn how to work in this sandbox. I believe we’ve done a very good job of working collaboratively together. 

Most of the bills that I run and most of the bills that I see other folks run always partner with the Republicans, because we want to give the spirit of collaboration. The spirit of what we’re trying to do is not about a party, it’s about what’s best for the state of Colorado. I have no doubts that that’s going to change, because that’s been my history, that’s been my experience, and that’s the way we do it in Colorado, we work together.”

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.