OpEd: Profit-based healthcare system has to go

This OpEd was written by VWC member Bekah Mandell, who lives in Burlington. It's run so far in the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus.

$587,206.  That’s what Blue Cross Blue Shield CEO Don George made last year -- before his bonus.  

That makes Don George one of the highest paid executives in the state of Vermont and puts him at the top of state’s 1%.      

BCBS’ six other executives made between $270,000 and $350,000 before bonuses last year, putting many of them in the 1% too. 

Seems like a lot of money to pay the top executives at Vermont’s non-profit health insurance company, doesn’t it?  By law, non-profits are required to provide a broad public benefit and cannot be organized for the individual profit of those involved in the organization.  

$587,206 a year before bonuses sure seems like a lot of individual profit to me.  

In addition to paying its CEO more than 10 times the average Vermonter’s salary, Blue Cross Blue Shield uses its non-profit status to shirk more than $15 million in taxes to the state of Vermont.  

At a time when lawmakers are struggling to balance the budget, that $15 million in lost tax revenue could help thousands of families get the healthcare and services they need.  

Earlier this year, the state of California revoked California Blue Cross Blue Shield’s tax exempt status.  It’s time to recognize that like BCBS of California, BCBS of Vermont does not deserve to be treated like a non-profit.   

It’s time to treat health care as a public good and not a cash cow for a handful of wealthy executives.  We’ve got to do more than just revoke BCBS tax exempt status, we’ve got to get rid of the system that allows BCBS to treat healthcare as a for-profit commodity in Vermont.  

I’m not advocating for an expansion of Vermont Health Connect.       

My husband and I have been struggling to navigate the Vermont Health Connect system and I know we’re not alone.  Between the two of us, we’ve spent dozens of hours on the phone with them trying to sort out our coverage.  We’re expecting our first baby in May, so we’re terrified that some glitch in their system is going to end up costing us hundreds or thousands of dollars in hospital fees.

After dealing with the Vermont Health Connect bureaucracy, it’s tempting to throw in the towel on the whole idea of a universal health care system if the State is going to have anything to do with it.  

But that’s just it.  Vermont Health Connect and BCBS of Vermont are part of the same broken system.  Don George and his fellow executives are profiting from the mess that Vermont Health Connect is making of our healthcare system.  

When the Vermont Health Connect website is down for the 5th time in a week, it’s hard to remember that Vermont Health Connect is really just in the business of collecting premiums for BCBS -- but that’s the reality.  The workers at Vermont Health Connect got stuck with all the hard work of figuring out complex new systems while Don George and the folks at BCBS just sit back and reap the benefits.

The good news is that we don’t have to rely on Vermont Health Connect to provide our healthcare or stop at stripping BCBS of its tax-exempt status.  We can move forward with an accountable and truly universal healthcare system that treats our healthcare as a public good and not a commodity for private profit.  

In a truly universal healthcare system, nobody will have to spend hours on hold because our care won’t be contingent on whether we filled out the correct change of circumstance form.  Instead, we’ll be able to access the care we need when we need it without thick layers of bureaucracy wasting our time.   

We’ve already taken major steps on the path to creating a truly universal system here in Vermont with the passage of Act 48, Vermont’s universal healthcare law.  Now, it’s up to us to make sure we finish the job.