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Shumlin Won’t Be Deterred On Single-Payer Health Care

  • Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, left, greets Sen. Anthony Pollina, center, before a Senate Health and Welfare and House Health Care Committees joint meeting at the Statehouse in Montpelier, Vt., on Tuesday, January 7, 2014. (AP Photo/Andy Duback)

    Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, left, greets Sen. Anthony Pollina, center, before a Senate Health and Welfare and House Health Care Committees joint meeting at the Statehouse in Montpelier, Vt., on Tuesday, January 7, 2014. (AP Photo/Andy Duback)

  • Sen. Dick McCormack, center, listens to Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, who speaks before a Senate Health and Welfare and House Health Care Committees joint meeting, at the Statehouse in Montpelier, Vt., on Tuesday, January 7, 2014. (AP Photo/Andy Duback)

    Sen. Dick McCormack, center, listens to Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, who speaks before a Senate Health and Welfare and House Health Care Committees joint meeting, at the Statehouse in Montpelier, Vt., on Tuesday, January 7, 2014. (AP Photo/Andy Duback)

  • Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, left, greets Sen. Anthony Pollina, center, before a Senate Health and Welfare and House Health Care Committees joint meeting at the Statehouse in Montpelier, Vt., on Tuesday, January 7, 2014. (AP Photo/Andy Duback)
  • Sen. Dick McCormack, center, listens to Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, who speaks before a Senate Health and Welfare and House Health Care Committees joint meeting, at the Statehouse in Montpelier, Vt., on Tuesday, January 7, 2014. (AP Photo/Andy Duback)

Montpelier — Gov. Peter Shumlin vowed on Tuesday to keep moving the state toward a universal health care system by 2017 despite some lawmakers’ doubts that it can be done, especially given the troubled rollout of the state’s Obamacare insurance marketplace.

Standing before members of the House and Senate health care committees, Shumlin acknowledged the technical problems that have prevented thousands of residents from buying coverage through VermontHealthConnect.gov, the state’s marketplace website, launched in October . However, Shumlin expressed confidence that the website would continue to improve and said the problems should not derail the larger goal to establish a single-payer health care system in Vermont.

“I know that we have work to do to restore Vermonters’ confidence in our ability to get health care right. The confusion, the disappointment and the struggle created by the website woes have caused some to suggest, that perhaps I should be deterred from my promise to move Vermont beyond the exchange to the first sensible, universal, affordable publicly financed health care system in this country,” Shumlin said before a packed room at the Statehouse. “Let me assure you that I am not so easily deterred.”

Vermont has been pursuing a single-payer health care system since 2011, with the passage of Act 48. Since then, however, state health officials have largely been preoccupied with creating the health insurance marketplace, a provision of the Affordable Care Act of 2010. Vermont Health Connect allows for the online purchase of health care insurance.

Shumlin hoped to use the marketplace as a springboard to single-payer, but technical problems have prevented many people from purchasing plans since the website’s launch in October.

Vermont was one of 16 states and the District of Columbia to create its own marketplace, while other states, including New Hampshire, left the job to the federal government. All of the marketplaces have had problems, although the state-based websites appear to have been more successful in getting people enrolled.

So far, around 20,000 Vermonters have enrolled through VermontHealthConnect.gov for insurance coverage that began Jan. 1, and another 30,000 have picked a plan and are in the process of being enrolled, according to Mark Larson, commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access. That is far short of the state’s goals to have 100,000 people enrolled for 2014.

Problems persist with the website. For example, consumers cannot add dependents to their plan online. Still, Shumlin said the website was “hitting its stride” and that he would dedicate more resources to ensuring it continued to improve. Lawrence Miller, secretary of the Agency of Commerce & Community Development, will “assist in further improvements” during the next three months. Also, Shumlin will have an independent third party conduct a thorough review of the website’s rollout and produce a report that will be shared with the public.

The website — indeed the entire Affordable Care Act — is not a solution to controlling health spending and improving quality and access to care, Shumlin said. The federal health reform law was a compromise and does not go far enough to address larger concerns, which is why states must serve as the laboratories for designing a model for the nation, Shumlin said.

“We must seize the opportunity we have now to address the fundamental failures of our current health care system,” Shumlin said. “And that’s why it’s never been more urgent that we move forward with a universal, publicly financed health care system where everyone has health care because they’re a resident of the Green Mountain State.”

Several Senate and House health committee members remain skeptics, largely around concerns over how such a system would be financed. Shumlin has offered broad strokes about what universal health care in Vermont might look like, but has not put forward specifics on how it would be paid for.

Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, D-Bradford, asked Shumlin to explain the level of “creativity” that his staff was considering for financing universal health care. Shumlin again offered nothing specific, but said he did not intend to load additional financial burdens on the backs of Vermont residents.

The money that Vermonters now spend on insurance premiums would simply go toward funding a publicly financed system, he said.

“I don’t know all of the answers,” he said. “And everything is on the table. Everything is fair game. And I will be a collaborative partner in those conversations.”

In an interview after Shumlin’s remarks, Rep. Doug Gage, R-Rutland, said that he could not support a universal health care system without more information.

“The devil is in the details,” Gage said. “Until he comes up with that, then there’s nothing to talk about.”

Rep. Mary Morrissey, R-Bennington, echoed Gage’s desire for more details, and added that she also was worried about consumer education if Vermont were to move to a single-payer system.

To date, she has not heard about any efforts to make sure Vermont residents were well-informed about what such a system would mean for them.

“I think we need to be up front, honest and consistent with what we’re telling the citizens of Vermont,” she said.

Others praised Shumlin’s commitment . The environmental and consumer advocacy organization Vermont Public Interest Research Group issued a statement shortly after Shumlin’s address, reiterating the need for more comprehensive health care reform.

“The Governor highlighted what we have known all along, the Affordable Care Act does a lot, but it does not fix the underlying problems with our health care system,” said Falko Schilling, a consumer protection advocate with the Montpelier organization. “We need to remain committed to a system where everyone is covered not because of their job or how much money they make, but because they are Vermonters. We can’t afford to sit idly by while our health care system continues to take more and more money out of the pockets of hard working Vermonters.”

Chris Fleisher can be reached at 603-727-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.