Senate wants 3 plans that ensure health care for all Vermonters

Experts to provide options for universal coverage

By Nancy Remsen
Burlington (Vt.) Free Press
Thursday, April 8, 2010 

MONTPELIER — Dr. Deb Richter is accustomed to the slow pace of progress toward the health reform she favors, but she comes back to the Statehouse again and again to push for change. She was on hand Wednesday when senators took another small step.

The Senate voted 28-2 to give preliminary approval to a bill that directs the Legislature’s Health Care Reform Commission to hire experts to write three sets of plans that would implement a universal health care system in Vermont beginning in July 2012. One of the options must be a government-administered, publicly financed health benefits system.

“It is a good bill. It will get the ball rolling,” said Richter, an advocate of a single-payer system she sometimes describes as “Medicare for all.” Medicare is a federal health insurance program that covers all Americans over age 65. Richter is sure the design for a single-payer system will show it to be “the most fiscally conservative way to cover everybody.”

The Senate’s health reform bill wouldn’t commit the state to change, said Senate Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Doug Racine, D- Chittenden. Rather, it would give next year’s Legislature and new governor detailed information to help them make decisions about the next steps they could take to achieve universal access and better affordability.

Racine said the design process “is a necessary step to make change.”

The bill senators endorsed Wednesday was a political compromise among three Democratic gubernatorial candidates. Racine, Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Susan Bartlett and Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin are among five Democrats running for governor. Initially, they disagreed about who should coordinate the planning called for in the bill.

“I believe now we are one big happy family,” Racine reported as he asked senators to substitute the compromise bill for his committee’s original version. Rather than create a new board to oversee the planning process, the bill calls for using an existing commission. The panel’s membership would change to include two more nonlegislative members and two fewer lawmakers.

Another change proved more controversial — although not among the gubernatorial candidates. It would cap growth in the collective rate increase for the state’s 14 hospitals at 4 percent for each of the next two years.