Column: Vermont Is Wandering in the Dark

Montpelier

When President Abraham Lincoln asked whether Vermont could do its part to protect the Union, Gov. Erastus Fairbanks assured him that we would. In the span of three short days a special session of the Legislature decided how many troops were needed, developed enlistment procedures, set up a payment plan for officers and men and accoutrements, established training facilities and designed a tax structure to raise the revenue necessary to pay for it all. They knew where they wanted to go and got there.

Compare that three-day achievement with the ongoing three-year overhaul of our health care system. Driven by the Democratic super-majority, we started by investing hundreds of thousands of dollars with Dr. William Hsiao to give us a plan with coverage and revenue specifics. We created a whole new bureaucracy through legislation that was called “a road map toward single-payer.”

Unable to secure coverage and revenue specifics, Republicans insisted that certain benchmarks were placed into that “road map” to ensure Vermonters weren’t left wandering in the dark. One of those was a clear directive requiring the administration to “recommend amounts and necessary mechanisms to finance Green Mountain Care by January 15, 2013.” Hundreds of thousands more were invested with the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine to meet that benchmark.

Jan. 15 is now behind us, but the “amounts and necessary mechanisms” are not in front of us. This is serious business. The administration claims a state-run system will cost approximately $1.6 billion annually. That is no small sum considering the entire state FY13 budget, including all federal money, is just over $5 billion.

Knowing how a state-financed system will be paid for is critical to those who will end up paying for it. Even though this system isn’t due to be in place until 2017, businesses developing long-term business plans need this information now. So do individual Vermonters who want to make decisions about their own employment and health insurance needs.

Part-time legislators, who will (eventually) be charged with enacting the financing scheme, will need advance planning by full-time experts within the administration. Creating workable policy and complex legislation will take time.

It is therefore quite troubling to hear Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding being quoted as saying “it makes no sense to design a financing system now for a program that won’t begin until 2017.” Even more concerning is his casual dismissal of the law’s clear directive: “It wouldn’t have been helpful now for Vermonters to issue a specific financing plan.” He ridiculed Republicans who were asking for compliance by suggesting they were just making “a political stunt.”

This is no time for political posturing. It is time for Vermonters to be told exactly where they are going and how they will get there. We’ve been wondering for three years now, and we cannot wait four more. If the administration will not comply, as the law clearly requires, with the benchmarks in our “road map,” Vermonters will continue on a very expensive road trip with no destination in sight. Our ancestors would not be impressed.

Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, is the Vermont Senate minority leader. Rep. Don Turner, R-Milton, is the House minority leader.