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Health care reform: Supporters celebrate historic signing

By Thatcher Moats
Rutland (Vt.) Herald, May 27, 2011

MONTPELIER — Amid a boisterous crowd of health care activists, lawmakers, lobbyists and administration officials, Gov. Peter Shumlin on Thursday signed into law the health care reform bill the Legislature passed earlier this month.

“We gather here today to launch the first single-payer health care system in America,” Shumlin told the crowd of roughly 200 people who gathered on the Statehouse steps for the signing ceremony.

The health care bill was the signature piece of legislation to pass through the Statehouse this year and is the latest step in what for some activists and lawmakers has been a decades-long battle to reform the health care system.

Dr. Deb Richter of Montpelier has been fighting to create a single-payer system for 22 years and since moving to Vermont in 1999 has given about 500 lectures in Vermont on the topic.

“I must say, on a personal note, this is probably one of the best days of my life,” Richter told the crowd. For Richter and others, Thursday was a time to celebrate, but they also acknowledged much of the work is yet to come and the fight is not over.

The health care bill establishes the Green Mountain Care Board, which will work to establish a health care system in Vermont that supporters contend will be less expensive for the state and for businesses and will provide coverage for all Vermonters.

It also begins to create a health benefits exchange that is required under federal law and has been described as a consumer-friendly clearinghouse for health insurance products.

But most of the work to create new ways to deliver and pay for health care has yet to be done and it could be 2017 before the state can get a federal waiver to enact a new system.

“We will hear this is an impossible goal, but all along people have said that it was impossible to get this far,” Richter said. “But here we are, and now the real work begins. We have a long road ahead of us to get this bill in place. Let’s get started — but after the party.”

Shumlin gave Richter the pen he used to sign the bill.

The signing of the law was repeatedly called “historic” on Thursday and there were shouts of “amen” and “yes” from the crowd in response to the words from the nine people who gave speeches, which in some cases took the form of impassioned rallying cries.

But opponents of the bill worry the legislation will be historic for the wrong reasons.

“We believe it’s going to be the most significant tax increase in Vermont history in order to pay for it, and they haven’t answered any of the basic questions,” said Darcie Johnston, the founder of Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, a group that formed last February to oppose the trajectory of health care reform.

Throughout the legislative session, opponents attacked the lack of information about what the benefits package will look like, how much the new system will cost and how it will be financed.

Advocates of the bill say it creates a process to answer those questions.

But Rep. Patti Komline, a Republican from Dorset, said the Shumlin administration and many lawmakers have been trying to have it both ways depending on what’s “politically expedient”: They tout the bill as historic and monumental but when pressed for details downplay it as a planning document.

They say “it’s a first step in providing single-payer, government-run health care and it’s historic,” Komline said, “and then when people ask how much is it going to cost … what the level of care is going to be, the strategy shifts to say, ‘Well, this bill really is just fact finding, we’re going to get that information.’”

House Speaker Shap Smith said opponents of the bill — from a different perspective — are guilty of the same thing, demonizing the bill when all the information isn’t available.

Opponents are also critical of the fact that details about the cost and the financing of a new health care system are not scheduled to be released until after the 2012 election, and Johnson said her top goal will be to get the state officials to release the information by September 2012.

The health care bill was signed into law Thursday, but government employees have already begun the legwork of starting to figure out how to create a new health care system for the state.

Earlier this month, about 60 government employees from numerous state agencies — including the Agency of Human Services, the Department of Taxes, the Department of Human Resources and the Department of Labor — attended a day-long retreat to begin that effort.

“Core teams” of state employees will gather information for the Legislature and the Green Mountain Care Board that will be formed in the coming months, said Anya Rader Wallack, a special assistant to Shumlin for health care.

In addition to technical work, there’s also a lot of political work ahead to fight the opponents of reform, state officials reminded the crowd at the Statehouse.

“This is the beginning,” Smith said. “This is not the end. We have hard work to do. There are definitely people who want to see this fail. We cannot let that happen. We need to work together to show the way for the entire country. We can do it. Vermont has done it in the past, we can do it again.”

Also speaking at the event were Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell; Rep. Mark Larson, who chairs the House Health Care Committee; Sen. Claire Ayer, who chairs the Senate Health and Welfare Committee; Jennifer Schneider, a Burlington resident who shared her personal difficulties with the health care system; Julie Lineberger, chairwoman of the Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility; and Cassandra Gekas, a health care advocate for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.

Many of the speakers thanked leaders in the Senate and the House, as well as Shumlin — who placed health care reform at the top of his campaign platform — and the grassroots activists who helped pass the bill.

Walter Carpenter, a 55-year-old Montpelier resident, used words like “jubilation” and “elation” to describe what he was feeling at the signing ceremony.

Carpenter said he battled a liver disease and at the same time had to battle insurance companies to cover his care. Then he lost his job and his health insurance and had to haggle over the price of a crucial treatment.

“I had to bargain for my life,” he said.

Carpenter believes these kinds of problems will be diminished for Vermonters with a new system that covers everyone and does not have insurance tied to employment.

“So this was also a personal victory,” Carpenter said.