Victory Lap

Rutland (Vt.) Herald, May 29, 2011

This is the triumphal phase of the first term of Gov. Peter Shumlin.

Last week his office released a schedule describing the long list of signing ceremonies he will hold throughout the state. Shumlin did not do it alone. Strong Democratic majorities in the House and Senate pushed through an impressive array of legislation on matters great and small. It is a sign of what can happen when voters set a clear direction and elect leaders eager to follow through. The Democratic successes this year also mean that the Democrats will be accountable for the success or failure of their ambitious program.

Shumlin signed the health care reform bill in a ceremony at the Statehouse on Thursday, cheered on by a throng of legislative leaders, advocates and supporters who have been working for years to establish a single-payer system.

One of the principal speakers at the rally was Dr. Deb Richter, who has been a tireless advocate for a single-payer system, meeting with hundreds of groups, publishing books that describe her ideas in comprehensible language and never compromising on her large idea.

Her idea is that health care is a public good that can be provided to everyone, just as we provide education or police protection, and it can be provided more cheaply if we establish a system that reduces the waste of the present haphazard system and the profit-taking of insurers and health care providers.

Hospitals at present maintain staff at particular levels based on anticipated need. Their cardiac departments, for example, estimate a certain number of heart attacks and are prepared to deal with them. Hospitals budget accordingly — for cardiac, oncology, obstetrics, emergency room and other needs. A single-payer system would provide budgets to meet those needs.

The difference is that the individuals who come to the hospitals at a moment of need would not be required to shoulder the load of paying for services. Everyone would pay. That’s because the cardiac and other departments are on stand-by and available for all of us when the need arises. It does not make sense to finance hospitals and other services by bankrupting individuals or feeding profits to insurance companies.

Over the years, Richter has presented this idea convincingly and clearly, sometimes exasperating politicians who felt compelled to water down the idea of a single-payer system. After he signed the single-payer bill on Thursday, Shumlin gave the pen he used to Richter.

Republicans are annoyed because the new law does not specify how the state will pay for the new system and what kind of benefits it will provide. The triumphal talk is premature, Republicans say, because the new system is far from reality.

House Speaker Shap Smith acknowledged that work on the new system is just beginning. “There are definitely people who want to see this fail,” Smith told the crowd on Thursday. “We cannot let that happen. We need to work together to show the way for the entire country.”

The administration has formed “core teams” of officials throughout the government to gather information to be used by the new Green Mountain Care Board, which will oversee establishment of the new system. Everyone, Republican and Democrat, acknowledges that the job of reshaping one-sixth of the state’s economy will not be an easy one.

Shumlin’s victory tour of bill signing ceremonies was curtailed late last week by the flooding in central Vermont that hit many businesses and offices. But the list of bills to be signed remains an impressive one. It includes a jobs bill, a telecommunications bill, a DUI bill and even a bill resolving the contentious issue of Pete the Moose. Pete, it seems, will survive.

There are also bills dealing with human trafficking, transparency in government, hospice and palliative care, registered nurses and marijuana dispensaries.

The marijuana dispensary bill is an example of a law that cuts across the usual conservative-liberal divide to put in place a bill responding to a difficult and complex reality. The bill had the cooperation and support of law enforcement, which will oversee the operations of a limited number of dispensaries that will make available marijuana for those with a compelling medical need.

Vermonters presumably knew what they were doing when they elected a Democratic governor and a strong majority of Democratic lawmakers. That the majority is following through with the promises it made suggests that democracy is working. If the results are less than satisfactory, then the voters will know whom to blame.