Vermont advocates continue push for single-payer health

By Lisa Rathke
The Times Argus (Barre & Montpelier, Vt.), Dec. 3, 2014

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Supporters of a plan to make Vermont the first state in the country to enact a single-payer health care system urged Gov. Peter Shumlin and the Legislature on Tuesday to move forward with the overhaul, despite Shumlin’s close call in the November election.

Sixteen groups, including the state employees and teachers unions, held a State House press conference to rebut critics of Green Mountain Care who say the election was a referendum on the publicly funded system. They say the election was so close because of property taxes and other issues.

But they acknowledged that garnering support for the plan will be an uphill battle following the debacle with Vermont’s health exchange website.

Shumlin said Tuesday he remains committed to the proposal and hopes to provide a financing plan and timeline to legislators before the session opens in January.

The administration will outline in the next several weeks what’s wrong with how the current system is funded and the challenges the state faces to sustain current spending, he said.

“One of the toughest things that I’ve tried to do is ... be the first state in the country that moves from a premium-based health care system to one that’s based upon ability to pay,” the governor said.

“We’ve been working hard to try to get it right,” he said. “Now the economists are drilling down into it to make sure that it helps our economy, helps grow jobs and improves quality of life and that work is still being done.”

But Darcie Johnston, leader of Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, a group opposed to the state’s health care plans, said the fact that advocates held a press conference to urge the governor to move forward confirms that they have a public relations problem with the public.

“Vermonters are taxed enough, and a $2 billion to $3 billion tax increase, a financing plan that has not been disclosed that is two years late by law, lack of transparency, and Peter Shumlin’s mismanagement of Vermont Health Connect were issues that dominated the election,” Johnston said.

The state temporarily shut down the state health care exchange website this year to fix several problems that plagued it since its launch, including trouble with pages loading, security issues and the inability for enrollees to make some changes online.

A survey of the 3,000-member Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals showed overwhelming support for singer payer, said Mari Cordes, a nurse member of the union.

Health care providers want anyone who needs medical attention to get it as early as possible, she said, with no barriers to accessing care when their condition worsens or becomes life-threatening and costlier to treat.

“Get the insurance companies out of our exam rooms and get our hard-earned money out of administrative waste and exorbitant CEO compensation,” Cordes said. “A universal publicly funded health care system is the only way to do that.”

Such a system will also benefit businesses by disconnecting insurance from employment and allowing them to expand and create jobs, said Dan Barlow of the Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility.

“If we don’t stem the rising costs of health care and we don’t expand coverage to all Vermonters and de-link employment and insurance, health care costs will overwhelm our economy and we’ll lose jobs here in the state,” he said.


Single payer advocates rally support in Statehouse

By Morgan True, Dec. 2, 2014

The November election that unseated a number of Democratic lawmakers and nearly cost Gov. Peter Shumlin his job was not a referendum on the state’s plans for a single payer health care system, according to proponents of reform.

Historically low voter turnout and frustration with rising property taxes were larger factors on Election Day, said Peter Sterling, director of the health care reform group Vermont Leads.

Sterling and others held a press conference to counter the narrative that the election amounted to a vote of no confidence on health care reform.

On the contrary, Sterling and others said, the public demand for a universal, taxpayer financed health care program in Vermont has not waned. Sterling emphasized that most Democrats and Progressives in competitive races prevailed. Rep. Mike Fisher, D-Lincoln, chair of the House Health Care Committee, and a key proponent of single payer, however, was voted out of office on Election Day.

Representatives from labor, consumer and health care advocacy groups gathered at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Tuesday to call on elected leaders to press forward with Green Mountain Care, as the so-called single payer program is known.

“Get the insurance companies out of our exam rooms and get our hard-earned money out of administrative waste and exorbitant CEO compensation,” said Mari Cordes, a nurse and member of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents many health care workers in the state.

“A universal, publicly funded health care system is the only way to do that,” she added.

The election is an “enormous wake-up call” for the governor and legislative leaders to take action and “move forward in bold ways to address the health care crisis,” said James Haslam, director of the Workers Center, which coordinates the Health Care as a Human Right campaign for the advocacy group.

Elected officials have a clear, moral choice, Haslam said — they can either continue to support a market-based system to drive insurance company profits, or they can lead the country by transitioning to a universal system that is “adequately and equitably financed through taxes.”

Martha Allen, president of Vermont’s chapter of the National Education Association, said it’s time for leaders to begin the conversation about what health benefits Green Mountain Care will cover.

The state should model the Green Mountain Care benefit on the state employee health plan, according to Leslie Matthews of the Vermont State Employees Association.

“We believe that every Vermonter deserves the same level of care that we receive,” Matthews said. The state employee health plan “can and should serve as a baseline for Green Mountain Care,” she added.

The state employee health plan offers a more generous benefit than many other states, according to a recent Pew study.

Pressure to set the Green Mountain Care benefit at a high level could meet resistance from fiscally conservative Democrats who will likely question taxpayers’ ability to pay for more generous benefits. Many Republicans oppose the concept of single payer altogether.

Members of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association stand to lose generous health benefits — or pay more for them — when an Affordable Care Act tax on high-value health plans takes effect in 2018.

Both unions fund health reform advocacy groups that helped sponsor Tuesday’s news conference.

Matthews said any universal health care program should be transparent and accountable, and for that to happen it should be administered by the VSEA.

Shumlin has said the program is likely to be administered by a third party, and many people close to the reform effort believe that Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont, the state’s largest health insurer, is a likely candidate to fulfill that role.

Concerns raised about the involvement of MIT economist Jonathan Gruber in developing Shumlin’s financing plan won’t prevent it from being debated on its merits, Sterling said. Gruber has come under fire for disparaging remarks he made about the intelligence of the American public.

Sterling also dismissed the idea that the governor’s process of developing a financing plan has not been transparent, acknowledging that Shumlin may be late delivering it, but that once it’s released, he expects a robust public debate.

The governor delayed a self-imposed deadline for his financing plan last legislative session and is now expected to release the plan in January. Since the election, Shumlin has promised an inclusive and transparent process for vetting it.

Progress for Sterling and other reform proponents would mean the Legislature passing a financing plan this year. Despite other priorities for lawmakers, such as education reform, the group appeared optimistic the state could position itself to move forward with Green Mountain Care in 2017.

Haslam said the proposal will impact every Vermonter, and the public should demand a role in its development.

“This is something that’s only going to happen if thousands of people come out and push for it,” he said.

The proposal won’t get a rubber stamp from advocates, Haslam said; they are eager to see if the governor’s plan is worth defending.


Health reform advocates urge Vt. move to single-payer system

Unions, some business groups push lawmakers for early '15 vote

By Stewart Ledbetter, News Channel 5 (Colchester, Vt.), Dec. 2, 2014 

MONTPELIER, Vt. — Supporters of a plan for Vermont to become the first state in the country to enact a single-payer health care system are urging the governor and Legislature to move forward with the plan without delay.

Sixteen groups, including the state employees' and teachers' unions said Tuesday that the November election results should not slow the push to adopt Green Mountain Care, the state's universal, publicly funded system.

"We need to do this," Vermont NEA President Martha Allen said. 

Once its champion, Gov. Peter Shumlin has seemed less outspoken about advancing a $2 billion reform plan in recent weeks.

Shumlin barely survived a re-election challenge from Republican Scott Milne Nov. 4. 

The administration is scheduled to release details on projected costs and coverage benefits when lawmakers return to Montpelier in January.

Supporters think that will galvanize public support. 

"Listen to the people," said James Haslam of Vermont Workers Center. "Give us something worth fighting for." 

Dan Barlow of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility said decoupling health insurance from employment will allow businesses to expand and create jobs while providing coverage to uninsured Vermonters will reduce health care costs by reducing emergency room visits.

Even critics of single-payer expect lawmakers might approve it, especially if the state gets an extra nudge from the Obama administration. 

"This is really what (President Barack Obama) wanted in health care reform and he wants Vermont to be the first to do it," said Darcie Johnston, president of Vermonters for Health Care Freedom. "So they'll push this ahead. When has this legislature said no to this governor?"