Elisabeth Arenales has been director of the Colorado Center on Law and Policy’s Health Care Program since January 2000. She is recognized as a health policy expert and focuses on public health insurance programs and implementation of the Affordable Care Act in Colorado. She was a founder and served for six years as board chair of the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative. She served as a consumer representative on the Colorado Blue Ribbon Commission on Health Care Reform and serves currently on the Colorado Commission on Affordable Health Care. She was a staff attorney for the Colorado Lawyers Committee, where she focused on access to education, particularly in rural areas of Colorado. She received the University of Colorado Law School Alumni Award for Distinguished Achievement and was named Trial Lawyer of the Year by Trial Lawyers for Public Justice. She was recognized as a community health leader by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and received the Iglehart Award from the Colorado Health Foundation and the Tip of the Spear Award from the Colorado Medical Society. She graduated from the University of Colorado School of Law in 1993.
Our Clearinghouse article this month looks at due process in a modernized public-benefits system. You have worked with the authors of that article on just such a case in Colorado. What did you achieve in Davis v. Birch?
The immediate effect of the litigation was that the state was required to take action to improve the capacity and accuracy of the Colorado Benefits Management System and to offer additional assistance to individuals applying for and receiving public benefits. And while it has taken a long time, the settlement agreements reached in the case have been reasonably effective in moving the state toward compliance with timely benefits-processing standards. In addition, as a result of the litigation, state agencies have paid attention when we bring systemic benefits problems to their attention. As a result, we have seen movement on a number of issues. In the end, however, many of the core challenges inherent in the operation and design of the system continue to hinder access to benefits in Colorado.
If you could give a high five to one of your legal heroes (living or dead), who would get it and why?
As a result of the litigation, state agencies have paid attention when we bring systemic benefits problems to their attention.
Edwin S. Kahn. In addition to being fiercely intelligent, kind, and the best punster you will ever meet, Ed is the best example I know of someone who consistently uses the law to make the world a better place. Ed has been involved in virtually every major effort over the last 40 years to improve the profession and assist those without representation in Colorado. He was a founder of the Colorado Lawyers Committee and the Colorado Center on Law and Policy. He has been a career-long champion of Colorado Legal Services and the Colorado ACLU. He helped to found the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative and is a national expert on health care conversions. He was co-counsel on the litigation discussed above and, although now retired, still volunteers his time to my organization. Ed was assigned to mentor me when I was just starting out as a lawyer, and he has been my friend and mentor since. I could not have been more fortunate.
As the director of the health care program at the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, what is the biggest health care issue you see now in the state?
Affordability. Since passage of the Affordable Care Act, the percentage of Coloradans without health insurance has dropped from 15 percent to 7 percent of the population. Despite this substantial increase in coverage, many people are struggling to afford health care. In Colorado’s mountain communities, for example, many families are spending more than 25 percent of their income on health insurance and out of pocket costs. The Affordable Care Act gives us tools to reduce costs through various pilot programs and the Medicare Independent Payment Advisory Board, but states are going to have to act to identify and tackle the principal drivers of health care costs. A challenge for advocates is to ensure that efforts to control costs don’t affect access or quality, particularly for low-income families and individuals.
The Colorado Center on Law and Policy is part of the newly formed Legal Impact Network. What opportunities do you see for state law and policy groups to collaborate on health care and poverty issues?
Collaborating organizations can certainly help each other by sharing ideas, research, pleadings, and strategies. The bigger lift is going to be to see whether we can identify and agree on a few key short- and long-term priorities, whether at the state or federal level, and move the dial on those.
What’s one of your guilty pleasures?
Going to the Taos Cow, buying the best ice cream in the world, and basking in the New Mexico sun.