Colorado Senator Irene Aguilar, MD'85, Inspires Pritzker Medical Students

by Cyrus Alavi, MS1, and Adrian Camarena, MS1

On February 28, 2018, the Pritzker chapters of the Latino Medical Student Association (LMSA) and Students for a National Health System (SNaHP) chapters invited Irene Aguilar, MD’85, a Pritzker alumna and Colorado state senator, to give an hour-long lecture about her journey into medicine and her career as a politician.

Dr. Aguilar has long been a role model for Pritzker students. In 2015, Miguel Barajas, MS4, read about a Colorado ballot initiative to create a single-payer health plan. When he found out that the champion of the initiative in the Colorado State Senate was a Pritzker graduate, he knew he had to reach out. Dr. Aguilar agreed to speak at a Career Advising Program (CAP) session co-sponsored by LMSA and Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP). In January, Dr. Aguilar’s election to the Illinois Beta Chapter (University of Chicago) of the AOA Honor Medical Society was announced, and current LMSA leaders, with guidance from Barajas, recognized an opportunity to invite her to share her experience with the Pritzker student body. Once the event was planned, LMSA reached out to SNaHP to cosponsor the event. Given Dr. Aguilar’s record of single-payer advocacy and her relationship to Physicians for a National Health program (PNHP), the partnership seemed natural, if not inevitable.

Dr. Aguilar began her talk by recounting her inspiring path to medicine. Born and raised in Chicago to immigrant parents, Dr. Aguilar has accomplished incredible things. Her story is one that is uncannily similar to that of many Latinx students in medicine. Her father emigrated from Mexico and was a farmworker until he served in WWII and earned his citizenship, after which he moved his family to Chicago. After attending Chicago public schools and graduating as valedictorian of her high school class, Dr. Aguilar attended Washington University in St. Louis on a full scholarship as a first-generation college student. She then attended the Pritzker School of Medicine and graduated in 1985.

Irene Aguilar, MD'85, with students
Irene Aguilar, MD'85, talking to students

Dr. Aguilar moved to Denver, Colorado to complete her residency training in Internal Medicine and has practiced in Denver since 1989. Dr. Aguilar has a loving family and three children. Her daughter Amelia Milagro (Amy) was born with developmental disabilities and has served as an inspiration for Dr. Aguilar’s advocacy work for people with disabilities. Her desire to help those populations most at risk was the impetus for her entry into the world of politics and fueled her desire to create a more comprehensive healthcare system in Colorado.

As a Colorado senator, Dr. Aguilar is dedicated to legislative action that expands access to healthcare while making it more efficient. She has sponsored key legislation to expand healthcare access in rural and underserved areas, to set rules to be used by payers when processing medical claims, to expand Medicaid eligibility, to ensure representation of people with disabilities on governor-appointed boards, and to create a universal single-payer healthcare system. Dr. Aguilar also played a leading role in a 2016 ballot initiative for a constitutional amendment that would have created a state-wide single-payer healthcare system. The proposed system, which Dr. Aguilar helped to design, was known as ColoradoCare, and it would have been partially funded through the ACA’s state innovation waiver. Her participation in grassroots organizing efforts helped put the amendment on the ballot.

Although the initiative was defeated, Dr. Aguilar remains hopeful for the future of single-payer healthcare. Referencing the rise of single-payer in Canada, which started with a public hospital insurance program in Saskatchewan, she expressed her ambition to introduce a successful single-payer program in Colorado that will provide an example for the rest of the country to follow.

Pritzker students who attended the event came for Dr. Aguilar’s unique insight on the intersection of personal identity and patient advocacy. “I came to the event because I am really interested in somehow pursuing a career in politics alongside medicine, but don't have a lot of models to look to for how to do that. Senator Aguilar is unique in her dual career but especially because she's a woman of color,” said Kavia Khosla, MS1. Speaking about her dual career as a physician and a politician, Dr. Aguilar said being a primary care physician taught her how to “listen without judgement and advise on what an alternate situation could look like”. These were encouraging words to MS1 Max Hawkins. “I felt inspired after attending this event that there is a path to improve the state of our country through electing caring and competent people in office. Moreover, I feel like by getting my MD... I will be able to accomplish more than I initially thought,” Hawkins said. Overall, the response to the event suggests that accomplished figures such as Dr. Aguilar are inspiring Pritzker students to engage in public forms of patient advocacy.