DENVER CAN DO BETTER
Public Health
Denver is home to world-class health care institutions and is a hub for medical innovation in the West. The city is also blessed with a strong Department of Public Health and Environment to respond to continued and emerging community health issues such as substance use disorders, mental health, reproductive health, infectious disease and environmental dangers, as well as a close relationship with Denver Health and Hospital Authority, which provides care in the city’s jails, all 19 high schools and inpatient and outpatient care throughout the city for all, regardless of ability to pay. 

The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare what many have long known: there are significant health disparities in Denver by race, gender, housing status, and neighborhood. While Denver has a strong public health system, the scope and purview of public health needs to be widened. Gun violence, homelessness and poverty, behavioral health and substance use disorders, systemic racism, and climate change are public health issues that need urgent attention. 

Addressing these interconnected social and structural determinants of health will improve Denver’s preparedness, resiliency, and prosperity. The COVID-19 pandemic has also laid bare the fact that an individual’s health is intimately tied to the health of their community and their environment. A healthy Denver community will improve the health and safety of Denverites.

What This Means

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Cultivate a Community Engaged Public Health System

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Throughout the campaign, we have heard from medical and public health professionals and leaders of community-based organizations in Denver. As I listened, community members identified high priority areas, areas of success, and areas of improvement that are essential to the public’s health. The most important point to emerge from these community meetings was the need to make a community-based public health system in Denver. Residents of Denver are kind and brilliant and thoughtful and creative. Even more than that, Denverites know what their city needs. Our goal will be to cultivate a public health system that incorporates the voices of the people and lets people know that their government is there for them.

Homelessness

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Denver cannot address public health without addressing homelessness. The current system is not working. People sleeping on sidewalks is not healthy for them or for our neighborhoods. If left unaddressed, the crisis will only continue to harm our most vulnerable populations. 

For example, unhoused individuals seeking health care usually end up in emergency departments. That creates multiple ripple effects throughout the system. It increases wait times for them and for other patients, reduces the number of available beds for treatment, and provides only immediate assistance. When they no longer require acute care, they are discharged back to the streets. The cycle often repeats. We must find ways to link health care and the need for housing.

As mayor, I will commit to making homelessness - and the public health crisis created by it - my top priority. We will begin with my Safe Spaces Plan to help get neighbors off the streets and, preferably, into transitional and long-term stable housing or to safe, sanitary, city-run outdoor spaces where services can be provided.

Curb overdose deaths

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According to DDPHE, the total number of drug-related deaths in the City and County of Denver in 2021 was 473, compared with 370 in 2020 and 225 in 2019. The percentage change in drug-related deaths from 2019 to 2021 was 110%. This is a trend that must not just stop, but be reversed. Now is the time to expand treatment access, harm reduction services, and work across sectors to decrease overdose deaths. As a legislator and board chair of Caring for Denver, I brought those services and programs to Denver. As mayor, I will double down. That means access to life-saving interventions like Narcan and harm reduction. That means additional outreach and supports. That means lowering the barriers to care. Denver is ready to save lives from more overdose deaths. 

We will do this using evidence to inform policies and funding decisions. Some of the most successful models of care are those where the services are brought to the people who need them. Wellness Winnie, Denver’s mobile unit, is an example of such success. Each week, this RV travels through Denver providing mental health and substance use services including peer support and navigation, screening and assessment, crisis stabilization, treatment, distribution of essential items, and referral to medical, legal, and social services. We need more Wellness Winnies. Under my leadership, we will push to support expansion of the mobile health units and quadruple the fleet by 2025.

mental health

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Denver has a role to play in the mental health of its residents. That means increasing access to everyday help for people facing challenges like anxiety or depression and providing direct assistance to those suffering severe mental health crises. This type of intervention is particularly important when addressing interconnected issues like homelessness and substance use disorders.

I helped bring mental health resources to Denver through the Caring for Denver Foundation and the STAR Program (which allows paramedics, and mental health professionals respond to 911 calls), but Denver can do better. As mayor I will build on that work and put city resources to use to make sure the mental health needs of the city are met. Denver is ready.

Establish a pandemic preparedness process and plan

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Denverites are facing the new reality of living in the Pandemic Era. Infectious disease pandemics and epidemics have become increasingly common due to deforestation, climate change, and overpopulation. With every pandemic our economy suffers, our livelihoods are impacted, our mental health deteriorates, our physical health craters, and our sense of community is shattered. It is important for Denver to take proactive steps to combat these effects.

To protect against the same devastating after effects, it is important for Denver to adopt an active process that includes collaboration, coordination, and communication among government agencies, public health officials, hospitals, health systems and front line healthcare workers. Upfront investment in preparedness will undoubtedly save lives and prevent catastrophic economic damage that characterized the COVID-19 pandemic.

Establish a Syndemic Central Command

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Syndemic care recognizes that public health crises are inevitably intertwined and interconnected. For example, providing support for COVID or HIV often overlaps with efforts to address homelessness or substance use disorders. Currently, Denver manages these through disparate entities with varying understanding of community needs and generally uncoordinated efforts. That is inefficient, ineffective and unacceptable. As mayor, I will establish an incident command center that includes medical and public health experts, community-based organizations, and people with lived experience to address syndemic issues. This incident command will work closely with hospitals, first responders, shelters, and community health centers to develop strategies to help people receive life saving support and access to treatment and housing.

Racism is a public health issue

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Racism affects the health of our entire city, state, and nation. Additionally, structural barriers, rooted in racism, influence where people live, work, gather, and play. Ultimately, it is these barriers that adversely affect health in these communities. Racism is a public health issue. Leslie has experienced first-hand the effects of racism and knows the importance of expanding investments in racial and ethnic minority communities. She knows that resources to establish a durable infrastructure are necessary to deconstruct generations of racism in our community. As Mayor, she will make investments to study the impact of social determinants of health and racism on health. She will work closely with DDPHE and community health organizations to ensure that these barriers are addressed so that Denver grows as a city that celebrates diversity while simultaneously improving health.

Protecting Reproductive Rights

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After the U.S. Supreme Court stripped away federal protections for reproductive health rights, Denver has been flooded by people from neighboring states seeking care they cannot receive at home. That has put a strain on our service providers and made care inaccessible to others. That must change.

Evidence shows that access to reproductive health services, including abortion, improves health outcomes and supports economic mobility and success. Access to comprehensive reproductive and sexual health services is crucial for disrupting health disparities, reducing rates of infectious diseases and infertility, reducing infant mortality, and improving maternal health. Access to certain reproductive services for Medicaid patients is limited by federal law (the Hyde Amendment); I will work to make sure that women in poverty are not denied this care.

In 2022, I sponsored the Reproductive Health Equity Act to protect those rights in our state. However, there is still much that can be done. As mayor, I will be committed to ensuring equitable access to reproductive health care for every person living in Denver, and those who come to Denver to seek care.

Gun violence reduction

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In 2021, Denver averaged 7.7 homicides per month, and in 2020 it averaged 7.2 per month. In 2021, Denver had the greatest number of homicides (96) since 1981. The majority of these deaths were caused by guns. Gun violence is an epidemic across our city and across the country. It is more than a public safety threat, it is a public health threat. From mass shootings to deaths by suicide, guns hurt people in Denver every day. Enough is enough. As outlined in our Community Safety Plan[insert link], as mayor I am committing to getting guns off our streets.

Ensure clean water and sanitation is available to all Denverites

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The majority of Denverites enjoy ready access to clean water and sanitation. But for those who do not, this can have life altering consequences. Unsafe and contaminated water disproportionately affects low-income, racial-minority residents. New filtration technologies and monitoring systems can ensure that every person has access to clean water. As mayor, I will be sure Denver partners with local organizations and works with state officials to ensure water justice for all Denverites.

Focus on schools

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Early childhood through teenage years serve as the foundation for healthy habits and healthy lifestyles. These are also years when young people can understand the importance of healthy relationships, develop positive body images, and grow into the people they want to be. The school-based health center program in all 19 Denver Public Schools has provided thousands of students the opportunity early-on to be their healthiest self. We will continue to partner with Denver Health and others to expand school-based health centers and health programs as these are a proven way to reach people early.

We can also help to combat the systemic effects of poverty through schools. For example, expanding free pre-kindergarten through the Denver Preschool Program and providing free grocery stores in schools with elevated poverty rates can help combat poverty at its roots.

Provide space for healing

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Our city should be a place for people to feel safe, but it should also be a place for people to heal. From substance use disorder recovery centers to birth centers or safe spaces for LGBTQ+ individuals, we will create safe spaces for healing. As mayor, I will make these hubs for resource distribution, counseling, trauma-informed care services, and community engagement. If our city is to thrive, we need everyone to feel like they belong.

Make environmental justice a priority

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Denver residents cannot be healthy without a healthy environment to live in. Denver must remain a leader in decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, making green technology and green architecture the rule rather than the exception, and ensuring that our environment is clean for everyone. Racial minority populations have long suffered the most, specifically with higher rates of asthma and lung disease from unclean air. Denver boasts the most reputable hospital in the world for respiratory disease, but there is no reason our people should be breathing polluted air in the first place. We will work to introduce new measures to make electric bikes, electric cars, and solar panels accessible to every Denverite. We will provide tax incentives to rental units that install energy saving appliances and windows. And we will expand the Denver bus services and expand fare free programs.

What Leslie has already done 

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  • Founder & Chair of Caring for Denver. Leslie championed the Caring for Denver ballot initiative to address the city’s mental health and substance use disorder needs by growing community-informed solutions, dismantling stigma, and turning the community’s desire to help into action. Since 2019, Caring for Denver has funded organizations in every neighborhood of Denver to transform mental health and substance use disorder care.
  • Brought STAR (Support Team Assisted Response) with community leaders to Denver to create a new paradigm for how we respond to 911 calls. Now, when you call 911 with a mental health emergency, mental health professionals can respond. This is safer for everyone involved - individuals experiencing emergencies, community, and law enforcement. STAR has had zero negative contacts since it began, lowers crime rates, and is now a model for the entire country.
  • Sponsored the Reproductive Health Equity Act to codify reproductive rights in Colorado law.
  • Passed landmark birth equity legislation in 2021 to address lack of access, inequities, and mistreatment throughout the obstetric system.
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Leslie is a bold leader who prioritizes the health and well-being of every person in Denver.

She understands that health is not just the absence of disease but it is helping people thrive in a safe community so that they can grow to their full potential.

She understands that protecting and enhancing the public's health takes both innovative thinking and radical empathy.
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Josh Barocas, MD
Physician and public health expert
Image credit: 303 Magazine
Portrait of Josh Barocas
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