What will Vermont's election mean for single-payer?

By Morgan True, Nov. 6, 2014

MONTPELIER, Vt. -- For many observers, Rep. Mike Fisher's defeat in the Addison 4 district came as a surprise, and as a rebuke of Vermont's push for single-payer health care.

Fisher, an eight-term incumbent Democrat, serves as Chair of the House Health Care Committee, and helped to craft Act 48, the legislation putting Vermont on a path to single-payer.

"Having him out of the picture is a big loss," said Dr. Deb Richter, president of Vermont Health Care For All, a single-payer advocacy group.

Gov. Peter Shumlin will likely hold onto the governorship, but many say this election was a referendum on his tenure, and he will be much weakened by his close contest with Republican Scott Milne.

Richter acknowledges that Shumlin's influence will be diminished, but she doesn't see the election as a rejection of single-payer.

"If this was a referendum on single-payer then (Libertarian candidate Dan) Feliciano would be governor, because Milne never came and outright opposed single-payer," Richter said.

House Minority Leader Don Turner agreed, in that he said this election as more of a referendum on the health care reforms already promulgated by Shumlin - by which he means Vermont Health Connect.

But Turner and other conservatives, such as political strategist Darcie Johnston, say that Shumlin's inability to fix the state's ailing exchange will undoubtedly give Vermonters pause when they consider his more ambitious health reforms.

"If he can't handle Vermont Health Connect, he can't handle single-payer," Johnston said.

For his part, Shumlin sounded a less bullish note on single-payer at a press conference Wednesday where he declared victory, but acknowledged the close call would cause him to reevaluate his priorities. The governor dodged direct questions about his commitment to single-payer.

But Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, who appeared to waffle on single-payer last session, said Democrats owe it to voters to follow through.

"The time for talk is over. Now it's time for us to take this forward," Campbell said.

"You don't give up before you see the game plan," he added, noting that lawmakers still haven't seen the governor's financing plan, which Shumlin is expected to present in January.

At the same time, Republicans picked up 9 seats in the House and, according to Minority Leader Don Turner, they could pick up two more on recounts. Republicans also gained two Senate seats.

There are still Democratic majorities in both houses, but the Republicans have picked up enough seats to shift the dialogue around health care reform, said Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia.

"It makes it more challenging, there's no two ways about it. I won't sugar coat that," Richter said, "But we did well enough all around in this state to get it done, I still have confidence in that."

Peter Sterling of the pro-single-payer group Vermont Leads, said he's still optimistic as well, noting that many of the seats lost by Democrats were in districts difficult for them to hold in non-presidential elections.

"These were marginal districts for Democrats," he said, highlighting loses in St. Johnsbury, St. Albans and Enosburg, where it was a Progressive who went down, but nonetheless a single-payer supporter. Both Richter and Sterling are confident that the new Legislature that will be sworn in in January has the capacity to follow through on single payer.

The concern of grassroots activists was revealed in a press release from the Vermont Workers Center and the Health Care is a Human Right campaign, which in the wake of the election called on officials to "recommit to Act 48."

The frustration expressed by voters with Vermont Health Connect "highlights the need to move beyond the Affordable Care Act," and press forward with single-payer, they said.

More than meets the eye in Fisher's defeat

For people in the Addison 4 district, Republican Fred Baser's win over Mike Fisher was probably less of a surprise than it was for those outside it.

Baser, 67, was the top vote getter, and will join Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, in representing the four-town district that covers Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton and Starksboro.

Baser is the Bristol town moderator, a former selectman, a former member of the school board, a member of Porter Medical Center's board and a founding member of the Addison County Economic Development Corporation.

Unofficial returns had Baser with 1,878 votes; Sharpe second at 1,767; Fisher third with 1,740 - only 37 votes out of the second seat - and Republican Valerie Mullin trailing with 1,519.

Mullin finished fourth even though she outspent her opponents by more than $2,000 in a race where no one spent more than $10,000.

Mullin drew the ire of her Democratic opponents by sending out a late-campaign direct mail piece that accused them of attempting to take over Medicare as part of the state's planned single-payer program.

Fisher chalked his loss up to a confluence of factors, including an anti-Democratic, anti-incumbent sentiment across the state in Tuesday's midterm election. There was a great deal of frustration with Vermont Health Connect, "which I'm sure was tied to me in some way," he said.

Fisher did not discount Baser's popularity, but he said he does wonder if the attacks hurt his chances.

Baser said would like to think that the mailers weren't a factor. The former financial planner described his Republicanism as moderate.

He supports universal health care that gives all Vermonters coverage, but Baser said he's skeptical of financing such a program with taxes. But he would like to work in a bipartisan manner to find solutions for health care reform, he said.

When Sharpe told him what the Mullin mailer said, he remembers shaking his head.

"That's not my style," he said "I wouldn't do something like that."

But Johnston, director of the anti-single-payer group Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, said she thinks the mailers resonated in the district and acknowledged it was one she crafted for Mullin.

Addison County is the second oldest in the state, and according to Johnston, the four towns in the district have a "very old population," increasing the Medicare mailer's efficacy.

"Valerie Mullin made that a centerpiece of her campaign, the strategy of it, and she wasn't the beneficiary, but she's thrilled as we all are that Mike Fisher was defeated," Johnston said.

Fisher said the loss stings, but at the same time "there's also this opening in front of me that feels really freeing."

He wouldn't say whether he plans to run for office again in two years, but Fisher said he does want to remain engaged in health care reform in some fashion. Fisher congratulated Sharpe and Baser, and said he was honored to have served 14 years in the Legislature.

Single-payer was going to be a difficult undertaking before the election, Fisher said, and while his loss isn't a bad omen for its future, it was a rough election "across the board" for single-payer supporters.