Guest column

What I thought I knew about solving problems


As mentioned last month, I am now a seminarian at Iliff School of Theology, and I bet you can’t believe what I am learning there. (Hint: It’s not about religion!)

For eight years in the Colorado Senate, I served on the Health and Human Services Committee. Through testimonies, research reports and data analytics, I thought I knew all about the health of Coloradans and the health systems in our state. The more I learned, the more I understood how a hospital patient might get an unexpectedly high bill or how a person might end up on a waitlist for a mental health visit. At the time, I thought we were doing a great job of “fixing problems.” And to some extent, we were.

We had waitlists because we had a shortage of therapists so we worked to make it easier for people to get licensing safely, but more quickly. We created loan forgiveness programs for primary care doctors so they would work in the underserved rural areas. We looked for interventions that would help existing patients and clients. Every once in a while, we would put efforts into prevention programs like the Zero Suicide model. And that was good, honorable work toward ensuring equitable health care for everyone.

But I never thought I’d go to seminary to learn about real problem solving in health inequity. In the Legislature, we could shorten the waitlists, increase charity care for those in poverty, get some prevention services … to a few, for a while. But as they say in health care, that’s only the first step in the treatment — stopping the bleeding. The full diagnosis requires overhauling a whole system that is well rooted in profit and keeping the poor in their place. How could the ruling class remain in power if the impoverished were healthy and prosperous? How could those billion-dollar corporations maintain their profits if fewer people needed their medicines, hospital rooms, or oxygen tanks?

So instead of tinkering around the edges of problems and fixing bits and pieces temporarily, I’m learning that we might just need to uproot the whole system, roots still attached. (I think I’m becoming more radical than I thought I would be at this age.) Being a naturally curious person, I have always asked a lot of questions in committee or in the office. I believe we all grow from asking questions. But what I am learning now from theology school is how to ask better questions, deeper questions. How do we put aside our usual paradigms and not just think outside the box, but instead invent a new box that might look like a circle.

Is this possible within the confines of an existing system? Maybe not. But what I am seeing now is that it shouldn’t be just a binary choice, but a “both/and” of multiple choices. If we could continue the good incremental work inside the system (as with the Legislature) and also work on the outside with those most affected “at the bottom” that could be transforming. We could end up with a brand new way of thinking with no problems to fix at all.

Formerly a Colorado state senator, Linda Newell, of Littleton, is a filmmaker, writer, speaker, and consultant. She may be reached at,,, Twitter: @sennewell, Facebook: Senator Linda Newell or TheLastBill.

Linda Newell


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