Commentary

State Rep. Karen McCormick brings science to lawmaking

The new representative plans bills on healthy soil, internet access and proton beam therapy

February 3, 2021 6:30 am

Colorado Rep. Karen McCormick poses in the state House of Representatives. (Courtesy of Karen McCormick)

Some new lawmakers seek fame. Some, apparently, seek to overthrow the government. The good ones simply do the job we elected them to do.

Newly elected state Rep. Karen McCormick is here to do the job.

A Democrat representing House District 11, McCormick is a woman of science who holds a bachelor’s degree in agriculture and a doctorate in veterinary medicine. She’s mild-mannered, compassionate and focused on her work — all extremely qualified characteristics of a new lawmaker that simultaneously risk her being overshadowed by a cacophony of political scandals and loud personalities.

Which is exactly why I sought her out.

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Talking with McCormick feels a bit like talking to a school kid on their first day of class — she’s audibly excited and can’t wait to work with her new colleagues. Prompted for her thoughts on recent antics of other newly elected officials, McCormick wasn’t eager to roll in the mud. “I just want to get stuff done,” she said.

And so we did.

McCormick’s initiatives are refreshingly practical. Her first bill — recently filed — seeks to improve internet access for students and educators. Especially during the pandemic, she stressed the importance of ensuring reliable internet access for low-income and remote families. The new bill would ease the process of schools creating or expanding their own closed network systems by clarifying language from a 2005 bill.

McCormick explains that while school districts likely already qualified for closed networks under the 2005 bill, it didn’t explicitly define school districts as government districts. Yet she’s quick to follow up that this clarification in no way provides competition for Comcast or other internet providers. “These networks within school districts will be used for internal use only. They are not available for public access, but only to facilitate remote learning,” she says. The bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, would apply to school districts statewide.

But that’s just one of the five bills she has in the works. In a sneak peek of what’s to come, the veterinarian-turned-legislator happily revealed a few more, ahem, pet projects. 

In a nod to her educational background and new appointment as vice chair of the House Agriculture, Livestock and Water Committee, McCormick says she’s teaming up with Alamosa farmer and Republican Sen. Cleave Simpson to deliver a bill to help research and improve soil quality across the state. She proudly describes it as, “A bipartisan effort that is being developed in partnership with the agricultural community, so we know it’s something they want because it’s been requested by the agricultural industry.” The bill, as currently planned, is set to provide a series of voluntary tools toward increasing soil health, such as free soil health testing, increased funds for producers to try new practices, and a statewide inventory of soil health research. She plans to submit the bill in the coming weeks.

Colorado Rep. Karen McCormick at her desk in the state House of Representatives. (Courtesy of Karen McCormick)

Another effort that piqued McCormick’s interest is a bill passed down by her predecessor, former Rep. Jonathan Singer. She says the bill would aim to ensure proton beam therapy — a form of specialized radiation therapy used in treating cancer — is not held to a higher standard of clinical evidence for coverage than the carrier applies to coverage of any other radiation therapy treatment. McCormick says insurance companies are currently declining the treatment, claiming it’s “experimental and investigational,” despite having been approved by the Food and Drug Administration since 1988.

The result, she says, is that Colorado patients are often denied this treatment, even if it’s the best option for their particular case. “It’s important for Coloradans to be able to have this treatment when needed, rather than having it automatically denied using a false rationale,” she explained. As it happens, her team is actively submitting this bill as we spoke.

McCormick isn’t quite ready to share her other efforts publicly, as they’re still in the works, though she noted hopes to provide a positive impact for nurse practitioners. After nearly a year being overworked and underappreciated on the front lines of COVID-19, surely the medical community will be anxious to learn more.

Still, for all her enthusiasm, McCormick acknowledges the challenges of being a first-time legislator. She graciously acknowledges her colleagues in helping to navigate the system, and says she’s “proud and happy” to be part of the team. She also noted the added difficulty of building relationships virtually due to the pandemic, but is making the best of the situation. Like most of us, she hopes things will return to normal by her second session in 2022.

No one can say for sure yet where McCormick’s efforts will lead, but one thing’s for certain: Her approach of science, collaboration and diligence without fanfare speaks volumes to her character. She may not be seeking the limelight, but we’d all be wise to pay a little more attention to elected officials like her — and a whole lot less to those who crave the megaphones.

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Trish Zornio
Trish Zornio

Trish Zornio is a scientist and lecturer in behavioral neuroscience and research methodology at the University of Colorado Denver. She has worked for some of the nation's top universities and hospitals and has focused her personal efforts on enhancing the intersection of science and policy, as well as women in STEM. Zornio is an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.

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