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January 12, 2010

Hundreds Attend Statehouse Health Care Hearing

DSC05138 Several hundred Vermonters from all corners of the state trekked to Montpelier Tuesday night for a three-hour legislative hearing on health care reform.

The overwhelming majority of speakers donned red "Healthcare is a Human Right" T-shirts or sported "Single-Payer Now" placards in the well of the House.

Not everyone who came had a chance to speak. By around 8 p.m., Rep. Steve Maier (D-Middlebury), chairman of the House Health Care Committee, told people in the audience that though they were two-thirds through the hearing, only half the people who signed up for a turn had spoken.

Many speakers offered personal horror stories of friends, relatives, or even themselves who had been sickened, sometimes literally, by Vermont's current bureaucratic health care system.

I Tweeted throughout the hearing. You can find my updates on my Twitter page.

The hearing was a joint venture by the House and Senate health care committees.

Sen. Doug Racine (D-Chittenden), chairman of the senate committee, told attendees that it was his goal to continue making progress toward "universal access" to health care in Vermont this session.

"We're not there yet and we have a a long way to go," said Racine. "I make no commitments on my part where we're going to end up this year."

There are two bills that would provide universal coverage — S. 88 and H. 100 —  being debated in the legislature, among other pieces of legislation.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) addressed lawmakers first, explaining what benefits Vermont expects to see from the federal health care reform package, including: More money to expand federally qualified health centers, and to support existing Medicaid programs, and flexibility that would allow states to experiment with new health care systems.

"It is my view that it will be the states who will lead the nation toward a rational health care system," said Sanders. And, Vermont could continue to be a national leader in the movement toward creating an affordable, universal health care system.

DSC05148 It was clear from the hearing attendees, though, that most in the room want to see the state move quickly to a universal, single-payer health system that is funded through broad-based taxes. Supporters argue that taxes would be less than current insurance premiums.

Several speakers said people should be able to access health care before it becomes a crisis and can then cost them, and the system, more money.

"I saw people who had good solid health care insurance come in regularly for check-ups or if they felt something was wrong, while I saw people without insurance who would put off coming to the health care center because they couldn't afford the deductible, or were worried they could not afford the out-of-pocket cost of care," said Julie Brochu, of Craftsbury, who worked in community health care for 15 years.

Other speakers talked about the need to decouple health insurance from employment — largely because many workers are afraid to change jobs, or even retire, for fear of losing their health care coverage and being unable to find new insurance due to a pre-existing condition.

"People are afraid to retire, and will be forced to work longer than perhaps they should just so they can work long enough to qualify for Medicare," said Reed Webster, a town highway worker from Westminster.

Other speakers simply said Vermont needs to make sure that its health care system is focused on the right priorities.

"We must go back to being patients, not consumers or customers," said James Haslam, of the Vermont Workers Center, which organized the Healthcare is a Human Right campaign.

"My mom died seven years ago of a cancer that was treatable," added Haslam.

Not every speaker, however, supported the creation of a single-payer health care system.

About a dozen speakers said the creation of a single-payer health care system would usurp citizens' "inalienable rights" spelled out in the country's founding documents.

"Health care is not a privilege nor it is a right; it is a need, a human need," said Tom Licata. "Government-run health care is an anathema to freedom."

"We the people have free will, and you propose to take it away from us with this legislation," said Stuart Skrill. "Please do not move this legislation forward, but do reestablish a program to help care for the indigent other than creating a new bureaucracy."

Others opposed to a single-payer system said countries who have such networks have lost primary care doctors and have seen long waiting lists for care as procedures are rationed out over time.

"I have a good health care plan and this bill would put me on a substandard health care system," said one speaker. "Businesses and Vermonters are already struggling and will leave Vermont rather than pay more in taxes."

Others said a single-payer system would not only raise taxes now, but would burden future generations with increased debt and taxes.

"I'm here tonight to say enough is enough, for my friends, my neighbors and most of all my two sons who I want to have the same freedoms and choices as I do: Smaller government and less taxes," said Joey Clark, from Fairfax.

Clark added that she doesn't disagree that parts of Vermont's health care system need fixing, but she urged lawmakers to push for tort reform, create more competition, and fix Catamount Health. "I disagree that a single-payer, government-run mandate is the answer."

Sheryl Rapee Adams, of Rutland, said she and her family fear of being pushed into bankruptcy due to one serious health care crisis.

Other speakers said it was Vermonters' moral duty to help their neighbors.

"We believe it's a moral duty as Vermonters and as citizens to make health care as a human right in Vermont," said Peg Franzen. "It's time to make health care a human good, not simply about profit for the insurance companies.

Aside from citizens, and some activists, a number of primary care physicians, nurses and other medical professionals testified in favor of a single-payer system.

"Imagine listening to Vermonters and not special interests," said one psychiatrist.

Dr. Deb Richter, who heads up Vermont for Single Payer, said private insurance company bureaucracies are a big problem and Vermont could save as much as $500 million if it adopted a single-payer system.

"The moral failure of our health care system has been well outlined tonight," said Richter. "We waste an enormous amount of money in health care. For every $1 we spend in health care, we spend 30 cents on just the transaction itself. That money takes away from the patient, and it takes physician time away from patient."

Photos by Andy Bromage

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