Posted on March 18, 2009

Single-payer health care system touted


150 rally in support of concept at regional forum at UVM

By Nancy Remsen
Burlington Free Press
March 18, 2009

Dr. John Walsh, a neuroscience researcher from Worcester, Mass., stood Tuesday with 150 other sign-carrying supporters of government-financed health care outside the building where 400 invited guests would attend a regional health care reform forum sponsored by the Obama White House. Walsh passed out yellow fliers that denounced President Barack Obama for failing to live up to promises to consider a Canadian-style health insurance system. “Single payer is the choice in the polls,” Walsh declared.

Sandy Eaton of Quincy, Mass., and a member of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, came to the only forum scheduled for the Northeast to add his voice to those demanding that national policymakers weigh the merits of a government-financed system when they discuss reform options. “Let’s make sure there is a fair and legitimate comparison,” Eaton said.

Rebecca Elgie, a retired teacher, traveled six hours from Ithaca, N.Y., because she has made advocacy for a single-payer system her cause. Three years ago she walked 400 miles across her state to raise awareness about the need for a better way to pay for health care. Elgie said, “The employee-based system has outlived its usefulness.”

The rally greeted the invited guests as they strolled toward the Davis Center at the University of Vermont under a bright blue sky. “They need to know there is enough support for people to drop everything and come here to support single payer,” said Dr. Deb Richter, a Montpelier family physician and prime force in the single-payer movement in Vermont.

“Barack Obama is with us,” Richter told the rally participants. “President Obama is in a leaky boat out there in an ocean surrounded by sharks. We can’t expect President Obama to stick his toe in the water. He needs our help. That is why we are here today.”

Many at the rally were sure single-payer advocates would be ignored during the forum, even though some, including Richter, had tickets. But Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, who co-hosted the forum with Gov. Jim Douglas of Vermont, didn’t duck the topic. He put a spotlight on it.

“Is there one way?” Patrick asked the audience. “Should we have a couple of different ways or should we have a national template? Let’s talk a little about single payer.”

Richard Slusky, chief executive at Mount Ascutney Hospital in Windsor, described himself as a single-payer advocate, but added, “It doesn’t have to be an absolute, government-run system. We can have a system that involves the private sector.”

Susan Baker of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group said, “People want choice.” She said a publicly financed health insurance option should be available to anyone, not just those with low income.

Patrick called on Richter, who sat in a front row in her white coat. Noting the administrative burden that physicians face dealing with dozens of health insurance payers, Richter asked, “Why would we even need private insurance?”

Jim Hughes, a retired physician from West Fairlee, observed the sky didn’t fall when Patrick, a politician, dared to say the words “single payer.”

“We ought to talk about it,” Patrick said.

Nancy-Ann DeParle, director of the White House Office of Health Reform, offered a cautionary note about a single-payer system. She asked how many in the audience had health insurance, and then asked, “How many people would want to change what they have? That is one thing we have to keep in mind.”

Later at a news conference, Douglas replied to a question about the prospects of the single-payer concept with a warning about the politics of the issue. “There are lots of different ideas. We can move in a significant way without moving so dramatically that it is difficult to gain consensus.”

Other speakers posed questions for policymakers to consider as they fashion a new health system.

“What will you do for the next generation?” asked Bronwyn Fleming-Jones, a University of Vermont senior worried about how she will pay for health insurance after she graduates in two months.

Will reform consider the importance of home health care? asked Gary Sheehan, president of Cape Medical Supply.

Ira Byock, director of palliative care at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, urged policymakers to “focus on people, not patients and think beyond the silo of the health care budget.”

DeParle and the two governors will report to Obama about the forum. Three more forums are scheduled in other areas of the country. DeParle said she was learning information about programs that work, ideas that should be tried and political strategy to win support for change.

“You have two governors here who figured out how to get that support,” DeParle said.

“It took a very broad coalition to come together to design health care reform in Massachusetts and they have stayed together,” Patrick said. He added, it also took a realization “that there were other choices than the two choices on the table — the perfect solution and no solution at all.”

Contact Nancy Remsen at 578-5685 or

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