Vermont Moving Towards Single-Payer, Universal Health Care
Two days ago, the US House of Representatives voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, by a vote of 245-189. Although largely symbolic (Democrats still control the Senate and have vowed to block any attempt at repeal), the vote reflects the mandate of the 2010 midterm elections in which many Republicans and Tea Party candidates ran on a rabidly anti-Obamacare platform.
There is one state, however, where the opposite occurred. Newly elected Vermont governor Peter Shumlin campaigned promising to create a single-payer, universal health care system for the Green Mountain state. Like many Republican and Tea Party lawmakers, Shumlin also wants to be able to opt out of Obamacare, but for an entirely different reason.
Conservatives view the Affordable Care Act as excessive government intrusion, the “crown jewel of socialism,” as Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) called it. They are so beholden to the insurance and pharmaceutical corporations that generously fund their election campaigns that it is uncertain whether they really believe health care reform is the first step towards the People’s Republik of Amerika or if they’re just using the “S-word” because they know it scares the bejeezus out of their less enlightened constituents.
But Vermont is different. Socialism isn’t a dirty word up there. They’ve even elected Bernie Sanders, a proud socialist, to the US Senate. Patrick Leahy, their other Senator, is one of the most progressive national lawmakers, and their lone representative in Congress, Peter Welch, sounds a lot like a straight-up Marxist when he discusses health care. “I believe affordable access to quality health care is a fundamental right of all Americans,” he says on his website. “Everybody must be covered, everybody must contribute based upon his or her ability to pay, and coverage need not be related to employment.”
Gov. Shumlin wants to opt out of the Affordable Care Act not because it goes too far, but because it doesn’t go far enough to cover everyone’s health care needs. “Health care is a right and not a privilege,” he told Democracy Now! “We want to have universal access. We want to be the first state where health insurance follows the individual and is not a requirement of the employer– I think that will be a huge jobs creator. And most importantly, we have to contain cost.”
Citing skyrocketing health insurance premiums, Gov. Shumlin says health care costs are “killing small businesses [and] killing middle-class Americans” while insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies and other special interests are reaping record profits from people’s illnesses. He speaks of health care “profiteers” the same way others speak of war profiteers in the military-industrial complex. Shumlin is very much aware of the power and influence of the health-care industrial complex.
This sounds like dangerous talk. Corporations, after all, are now allowed to spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns. But instead of worrying whether or not he’s digging his own political grave by taking on the health care-industrial complex, Gov. Shumlin takes pride and finds solace in the uniqueness of Vermont’s electorate.
“My last campaign cost $2,500,” he told Democracy Now! “We have a citizen legislature in the state. We are not beholden to the special interests. We fight for our constituents in their best interest. And frankly, our insurance companies are smart enough to know that. So, I think that—you know, we all know that what’s destroying democracy is the extraordinary influence of corporate money. The folks that are making money off the system then elect the politicians that make the decisions about their economic future. So we have a real opportunity here, and I think our insurance companies are smart enough to see that we’re going to make progress, and they want to be the company that has the single payer.”
Blue Cross Blue Shield, the state’s largest insurer, wants in on the action. “If there’s a single-payer system, we’d like to be the single payer,” a company lobbyist said. This aspect, Gov. Shumlin hopes, will appeal to conservative lawmakers who are keen on private sector solutions and limited government.
“We’re not asking for one additional federal dollar,” he told Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman. “All we’re asking is that we are able to pool our federal dollars into our existing system here in Vermont in a uniform system. And I think that will appeal, frankly, to more conservative members of the Republican Congress. What we’re saying is, give us local control. Let us go our own way. We’re not asking for more federal dollars than any other state. What we are asking is that you let state rights stand up and let us design our own system, using those federal dollars as we see fit. And I think that will appeal to, frankly, some of the Tea Party governors that I have just been elected with.”
It would be a most interesting alliance were it to come to fruition. And with rising health care costs threatening to “bankrupt America,” Gov. Shumlin believes now is the time for concerted, coordinated action.
“The current system in America is unaffordable,” he said. “I think Democrats and Republicans can agree on that. If we stay on the current course, we will be spending the lion’s share of our income on health care. It will bankrupt our businesses. It puts us at a competitive disadvantage with all of the other countries who have figured this out. My vision is that if Vermont can get this right, other states will follow.”
Here’s to Vermont– and America– getting it right.
Tagged Affordable Care Act, Democrats, Governor Peter Shumlin, healthcare is a human right, insurance companies, Michelle Bachmann, Patrick Leahy, Peter Shumlin, Peter Welch, pharmaceutical corporations, Republicans, rising health care costs, socialism, Tea Party, Vermont, Vermont single payer health care, Vermont universal health care