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Advocates Gather at the State Capitol to Talk Public Health

Students make personal connections, gain insights into health-related legislation

Author Guest Contributor | Publish Date February 27, 2020

Students, faculty, and staff from the Colorado School of Public Health joined members of the public and representatives from the Colorado Public Health Association (CPHA) under the rotunda for Public Health Day at the Capitol. The annual event, co-sponsored by ColoradoSPH and CPHA, gives public health supporters an opportunity to learn how to advocate for bills, meet their legislators, and see the law-making process in action.

“Policy isn’t just a bunch of fixed laws and rules – it’s a living and constantly changing process,” said Assistant Professor Katie Dickinson. Her Environmental and Occupational Health Policy and Practice class took a field trip to the recent event.

Students watched a debate on the House floor and met with Rep. Sonya Jacquez-Lewis and Sen. Mike Foote. Foote co-sponsored a 2019 bill that established city and county regulatory authority over oil and gas activity to minimize negative health, welfare and environmental effects. Students asked questions about the factors that go into passing public health-related legislation.

Making personal connections

“The legislators were really personable. I think we forget that politicians are people at the end of the day, and this was a great reminder of that,” said Kathy Pang, an MPH student in the Environmental and Occupational Health program. Several lawmakers talked about the importance of making a personal connection when advocating for a bill or bringing an issue to their attention.

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Students heard about health-related bills being considered this session. Rep. Perry Will presented a measure he is co-sponsoring that would to bring insurance coverage in line with current American Cancer Society guidelines. Under the bill, insurance companies would be required to cover preventive colorectal cancer screenings starting at age 45 instead of the current cutoff of 50. It also extends the definition of preventive colorectal cancer screenings to include any follow-up colonoscopies that may be necessary, procedures that currently can involve significant co-pays and deductibles.

Until a family member filled him in, Will said he was unaware that people with colorectal cancer are trending younger and that covered screenings are often unavailable to them. The relative is his cousin Andi Dwyer, a ColoradoSPH staff member in the Colorado Cancer Screening Program at the CU Cancer Center. The bill has bipartisan support and not much resistance from insurance companies, Will said, and he is hopeful it will pass.

Insights into legislation

Some students also came to the Capitol ready to make connections that may help them advance issues of personal interest. Concerned about plastic pollution, Erin Girard, an Environmental and Occupational Health MPH student, wants to increase Colorado’s recycling and composting rates.

She chatted with a legislative aide about a bill that would have repealed a law that prohibits local governments from banning the use or sale of certain types of plastics. Girard wanted to know why the measure failed, and then she learned about another bill, which would ban polystyrene statewide, that appears more likely to pass.

“The bill that repealed the plastic preemption law would pose a problem to businesses because it would allow for individual counties and municipalities to pass their own plastic ban, but the statewide ban on polystyrene would create a uniform legislative landscape,” she explained. “This demonstrated to me that even if you support the sentiment behind a piece of legislation, you also have to consider the practical application of that policy.”

While legislators might have a sense of those practical applications, everyone who spoke acknowledged their own limitations and need to hear from constituent experts. That plea echoed the reason Dickinson brought her class to the Capitol.

“I wanted them to come away with a deeper understanding of what this process actually looks like, and most importantly, how easy it is for them to be a part of it,” she said.

That’s good news for Rep. Will. “Tell me what’s needed,” he asked the audience. “I don’t know what needs to be done unless you tell me.”

Photo at top: Rep. Perry Will was one of the speakers for the morning session, explaining how a bill he is co-sponsoring would expand insurance coverage of preventive colorectal cancer screening.

Guest contributor: Tori Fosheim, senior writer and content specialist, Colorado School of Public Health