Gov. Shumlin urges lawmakers to keep eyes on single payer prize

By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public Radio, Jan. 7, 2014

In an extraordinarily rare appearance by a sitting governor before a legislative committee, Gov. Peter Shumlin Tuesday took responsibility for problems on the new health insurance exchange, but said the shortcomings only reinforce his case for a publicly financed, universal health care system.

“No one is more disappointed than I am that we fell short of our rollout in the exchange, and I take responsibility for those failures,” Shumlin said. “The confusion … has caused some to suggest that perhaps I should be deterred from my promise to move Vermont beyond the exchange and … to the first universal, publicly financed system in this country.” 

Shumlin’s testimony before the House and Senate health care committees comes as lawmakers prepare to scrutinize an insurance exchange that has fallen well short of consumer expectations. 

Shumlin asked legislative leaders last week for permission to address the committees, in an attempt to preemptively address many of the hard questions his top cabinet officials are likely to face this year.

“Like the rest of the country and the federal government, we’ve had our struggles,” Shumlin said. “I said at the beginning of this process that for those who wanted to focus on the negative, there would be no shortage of material. The website limped out of the gate and it’s only now beginning to hit its stride… The contractors we hired to build it have under-performed at every turn.” 

But Shumlin said lawmakers shouldn't let disappointment in the exchange discourage them from pursuing the longer-term quest for the most dramatic state-level reform of the health care system in the nation’s history. The plan aims not only to eliminate the private insurance market in favor of a publicly financed system, but also the change the manner in which health care is paid for.

Moving away from a fee-for-service model that rewards providers for the quantity of services provided, as opposed to the quality of care provided, is key, Shumlin said, to curbing costs in a $5 billion annually industry that now accounts for about one-fifth of the state’s gross domestic product.

“Vermonters did not elect me to nip around the edges of health care and our health care system,” Shumlin said.

Even as he vowed to move full steam ahead on public financing, Shumlin said he wouldn’t pull the trigger on a single payer plan until he was assured the new system would succeed in lowering costs.

The governor on Tuesday also announced plans he said will more quickly resolve the glitches plaguing the insurance exchange, called Vermont Health Connect. He said he’s temporarily reassigning Secretary of Commerce Lawrence Miller to the Department of Vermont Health Access, where he’ll use his “practical business management” experience to identify and remedy problems.

Shumlin said he’ll also commission an independent review of the exchange rollout, to find out what went wrong, and how to make sure it doesn’t happen with the state’s next big IT venture.

Legislators had time to ask only a few questions of Shulmin before the governor had to depart for another engagement. But one Democratic lawmaker got to ask what kind of tax Shumlin plans to use to fund the publicly financed health care system.

Shumlin has indicated that the answer to that question may be at least partly in the offing before the end of the session. But he didn’t tip his hand Tuesday.

“I don’t have all the answers, and everything is on the table,” Shumlin said. “Everything’s fair game, and I will be a collaborative partner in this conversation – promise.”