Avery Book: Double-digit rate increases underscore need for universal healthcare

Last month's protest at rate hike hearing

 (This OpEd was published by VTDigger, the Bennington Banner, and the Brattleboro Reformer. Click here to watch a short video of last month's picket against the rate hikes.

Last week, the Green Mountain Care Board approved rate increases of 12.4 and 10.1 percent for next year's Blue Cross and MVP plans on Vermont Health Connect.

With its decision, the Board has now allowed Blue Cross premiums to rise 58 percent in just six years — an astonishing rise in cost at a time when wages for working people have remained stagnant.

Last month, dozens of people gave heartfelt and emotional testimony at a public forum on health insurance rates in Montpelier. Not one person, other than insurance company executives, asked for their premiums to go up.

Our elected officials hold the power and responsibility to resolve this crisis.

Lawmakers must hold the Board accountable as an independent regulator of Vermont's healthcare industry, including our struggling rural hospitals and OneCare Vermont, the state's accountable care organization.

The Board has powerful tools at its disposal to make healthcare accessible and affordable for everyone in Vermont, but only if it's able to act free of conflicts of interest.

In this light, we should be deeply concerned by UVM Health Network's hiring of former Board chair and Human Services Secretary Al Gobeille — who, as a public official, helped the hospital network secure a lucrative contract to manage Vermont's health delivery system through OneCare Vermont.

Lawmakers can also improve upon what already works well: Vermont's Medicaid and Dr. Dynasaur programs, which together provide healthcare and other services for one in three residents of our state.

In January, legislators will face an immediate test of their commitment to community health by voting on proposed increases to Medicaid reimbursement rates along with minimum wage legislation. These increases would allow low-wage home health and other workers to receive long-overdue raises, while ensuring continuity of care for beneficiaries.

Lawmakers have wide latitude for raising revenue to fund our Medicaid system, given the $350 million windfall received by Vermont's wealthiest residents through the 2018 Trump tax cuts.

Finally, and most obviously, elected officials and 2020 candidates for office must produce a plan to implement the universal healthcare system enacted in Act 48, beginning with a commissioned study on public financing mechanisms.

So long as our communities are held hostage by insurance companies, we'll face rate increases like this one year after year. This is the moment to act.

Lawmakers have a moral obligation to put the people of Vermont before the interests of the healthcare industry and the super wealthy. It's time to show some political will and treat healthcare as a human right and a public good for all of us.

Avery Book is president of the Vermont Workers' Center and a resident of Burlington.