Shumlin's Single-Payer Decision Draws Mixed Response

Thursday, December 18, 2014
White River Junction — Gov. Peter Shumlin’s announcement Wednesday that he would not ask the Vermont Legislature to pass taxes and fees to pay for universal, publicly financed health insurance pleased some business leaders, disappointed and shocked some supporters and fueled the anger of some Republicans.

Shumlin’s decision made it “a good day for the economy in Vermont,” said Betty Bishop, the president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce. “All of the numbers that we heard were really concerning to business at both ends of the spectrum.”

Some supporters were in disbelief.

“I’m in shock,” said Ann Raynolds, a Pomfret resident and a director of Vermont Health Care for All, a nonprofit that supports single-payer. “My email is blazing.”

Some were angry. Shumlin’s decision was “a slap in the face of many thousands of Vermont residents who suffer from poor health and financial hardship in the private insurance market,” the Vermont Workers Center’s “Healthcare is a Human Right” campaign said in a news release. The campaign called Shumlin’s change of course “a completely unnecessary result of a failed policy calculation that he pursued without democratic input.”

Others were more subdued. Sen. Anthony Pollina, a Progressive from North Middlesex, Vt., said that he had talked to a few active supporters of so-called single-payer after Shumlin gave his speech. “I think there’s a great deal of disappointment, but there’s also an eagerness to move forward,” Pollina said. “A lot of people who are disappointed saw it coming.”

Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, the Bradford Democrat who will be House majority leader in the upcoming session, said that while she was “sad for the timeout that we’re taking right now,” she trusts Shumlin’s judgment.

“When he saw the numbers, he made the right call,” she said.

Peter Sterling, director of Vermont Leads, a nonprofit organization that advocates for single-payer health insurance, said that some of the financial challenges in the plan could have been addressed, but not a projected $500 million expenditure needed to ease the impact of the transition on small businesses. “That was the number that was the real killer,” he said.

Shumlin promised to pursue other elements of the health care reform program that he signed into law three years ago during his first term as governor. On Wednesday, he said he would push to boost primary care, increase Medicaid payments to providers, utilize technology better and beef up cost-containment efforts at the appointed Green Mountain Care Board.

Some who differed on single-payer views agreed about expanding the role of that board.

“The one silver lining in this cloud has been the Green Mountain Care Board,” said Sen. Joe Benning, the Senate Republican leader whose Caledonia district includes several Bradford-area towns. Benning said the board had “bent the cost curve to some extent.”

Sterling, a single-payer advocate, expressed a similar outlook. “The Green Mountain Care Board is on a very good path to controlling costs,” he said.

But Pollina said health care reform measures that focus on cost containment and primary care services “don’t get to the root of the problem, which is the need for universal coverage that is paid for based on the ability to pay.”

Shumlin’s decision to scrap the plan caused plenty of political ripples.

Rep. Don Turner, the Republican House Minority leader, issued a press release that denounced Shumlin’s health care reform efforts as “an egregious waste of taxpayer dollars” that had caused an “exodus of specialize doctors, business and lost economic development opportunities.” Turner said that he and Benning would ask authorities to audit Shumlin’s spending of federal dollars, and accused him of squandering “well over $100 million.”

Benning said that he had not seen the release and could not comment on that figure.

Benning said that he thought Shumlin had been playing politics with single-payer, which was “a tool that he has used for protection over three electoral cycles.”

His leadership on that issue “held together a coalition of people who wished to see this happen with some who were skeptical and willing to give it a try,” Benning added.

But Pollina, a supporter of single-payer, said that while Shumlin may have lacked the capacity to come up with “creative” solutions — such as taxing wealth and income — to finance health care, his intentions were sound: “I think the governor would have really preferred that he could find a way to make it work.”

Scott Milne is a Pomfret Republican who, as his party’s nominee for governor, denounced single-payer as “Peter Shumlin’s radical experiment with health care” and argued that there was “no plausible way that single-payer is going to come to be in 2017 in Vermont.”

In the November election, Milne trailed Shumlin by more than 2,000 votes but won enough support to deny the incumbent a majority. Under Vermont law, that handed the gubernatorial decision over to the Legislature, which will vote in early January.

Milne returned to candidate mode Wednesday to “congratulate (Shumlin) for coming clean before the election.” Shumlin’s announcement left Milne “a little more optimistic” about his chances in the Legislature’s vote, he said.

Benning said that he doubted Wednesday’s announcement would persuade enough legislators to change their votes and affect the result.

Milne said he was not “seeking” votes, but rather “asking legislators to do what the Constitution requires: vote for who they think will be the best governor for Vermont for the next two years.”

Meanwhile, single-payer advocates must reconsider their plans. Pollina said that supporters would not give up the battle for health care reform, but acknowledged that Wednesday’s announcement had left them “discombobulated.”

“There’s a lot of digesting that has to go on,” he said.

Rick Jurgens can be reached at rjurgens@vnews.com or 603-727-3229.


Joe Benning is the Senate Republican leader. His leadership post was unclear in an earlier version of this story.