A call for health reform
Statehouse crowd details system's faults, horrors, urges change.
by Dan Barlow
MONTPELIER – Hundreds of Vermonters filled the Statehouse Tuesday for a public forum on health care reform, with a vast majority urging lawmakers to adopt a single-payer system.
The Vermont Legislature's two health care committees scheduled the forum to get direction from residents as they prepare to study a host of dramatic changes to Vermont's health care system, including a single-payer system, a public option and other proposals.
U.S. Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent, was the first speaker at the forum. Hoarse from a cold, Sanders defended his vote in favor of the national health care reform bill and told lawmakers that the country will now be looking to the states to lead for more progressive reforms.
"At the end of the day, it will be a state that will lead the country to a rational health care system," Sanders said. "We have an opportunity here for America to show them what a comprehensive, universal system looks like. If Vermont leads, other states will follow."
Many of the supporters of a single-payer system – a health insurance program run by the state or federal government that guarantees access, paid for via taxes – wore red shirts declaring that "health care is a human right." The effort is part of a movement started by the Burlington-based Vermont Workers Center.
Nancy Welch, a Burlington English professor, told the crowd about how her insurance company tried to fight treatment for her husband's kidney and brain cancers. She said the company appointed her husband a caseworker who would routinely deny him coverage for procedures that his doctors recommended.
She pointed out that Medicaid, the government-run health insurance for low-income people, only spends about 3 cents from every dollar on administrative costs. Most private insurance companies spend between 15-30 cents, she said.
"The insurance companies were squeezing profits from the health care system while trying to run down the clock on my husband's life," she said.
Dr. Deb Richter, a resident of Montpelier with a practice in Cambridge, rolled out a pile of paper that was nearly 200 pages long detailing all the different insurance companies and plans that her small office needs to bill after it sees patients.
As Richter spoke, single-payer supporters passed the unfurled scroll of paper across the room. At its full length, it could have run from one side of the House chambers to the other. Under a single-payer system, billing would probably only cost her office about 3 cents from every dollar, she said.
"I could probably see 20 percent more patients if it wasn't for this paperwork," she said.
Not everyone supported a single-payer system. One woman in the crowd waved a sign that said "health care is a privilege, not a right." Bill Day, who said he was a former state health official, said a government-run health care system would lead to the rationing of care and a doctor shortage.
"This will give bureaucrats the power over life and death," he said.
And the Vermont Republican Party, in a statement released shortly before the forum began, criticized Democrats for holding the session and not focusing on the $150 million budget hole. Republicans said lawmakers should let Washington, D.C. finish its debate before considering further action in Vermont.
"Rather than wasting time scoring political points with special interest groups, the health care committees in this building should be evaluating every department, division, and agency over which they have jurisdiction in order to restructure and find the efficiencies and critical savings we need," said House Republican leader Patti Komline.
But many Vermonters who attended Tuesday's forum said health care – and sometimes the lack of health care – were among the top issues facing the state and the country.
Peggy Safire of Craftsbury said she drives her husband, who has been diagnosed with bladder cancer, to a New Hampshire hospital for treatment because local ones don't accept Medicaid payments. If a single-payer plan was passed in Vermont, she wouldn't face a regular four-hour round trip, she said.
"You have it in your power to be courageous in this Statehouse," she told lawmakers. "We'll be watching to see what you do."
Tuesday's forum was scheduled by Sen. Doug Racine, D-Chittenden, and Rep. Steve Maier, D-Middlebury. Racine, a gubernatorial candidate and chairman of the Senate Health Care Committee, has said the two groups would spend the session working closely together to investigate a number of possible reforms.
The committees are expected to begin that work today with hearings on at least six different health care proposals – including single-payer and public option plans – in Room 11 at the Statehouse at 1:30 p.m.