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January 07, 2014

Shumlin Doubles Down on Exchange, and Shifts Focus to Single-Payer Health Care


Gov. Peter Shumlin is calling in reinforcements on Vermont Health Connect, the troubled website that has been the crucible of his most recent months in office.  

That was the news out of the Statehouse Tuesday morning, where Shumlin made the unusual move of testifying before a joint meeting of the Senate Health and Welfare and House Health Care committees.

He pledged more hands on deck for the day-to-day management of the troubled health care exchange, in response to a request from Commissioner Mark Larson. The governor announced that Commerce Secretary Lawrence Miller — who Shumlin singled out for his private-sector business savvy — will assist with improvements to the exchange over the next three months.  

Shumlin also heralded the engagement of an independent third party to conduct a thorough review of Vermont Health Connect’s rollout, designed specifically to ask how the state can better implement  major projects in the future. 

That is to say: single-payer health care.

“Vermonters know that real health care reform is much more than a website,” he told lawmakers on the first day of the 2014 legislative session. And while he acknowledged that “we have work to do to restore Vermonters’ confidence in our ability to get health care right,” he vigorously renewed his promise to deliver the nation’s first publicly-funded, single-payer health care system.

“Vermonters did not elect me to nip around the edges of health care and our health care system,” Shumlin said, sparking applause from several visitors in the standing-room-only committee room. “So let me be very clear: I have never been more convinced of the need to keep moving forward. I have never been more certain that we’re on the right path.” 

According to Rep. Mike Fisher (D-Lincoln), who chairs the House committee, the last governor to testify before a committee was Howard Dean, who also spoke on the issue of health care. It was Shumlin, not members of the two committees, who requested the meeting.

In the months since the October 1 go-live date, more than 50,000 people have obtained coverage through Vermont Health Connect. But the expensive system — for which Vermont signed a three-year, $84 million contract with CGI — has failed to function as designed. Users have been unable to pay online for their plans and, as of this week, some who had enrolled still hadn't gotten their cards. Shumlin pointed out that Vermont has fared better that many other states in the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, but it's a dim honor. He chided the contractors behind Vermont Health Connect who “underperformed at every turn" and said he ultimately takes responsibility for the failures that have dogged the website.

Looking ahead to the lofty goal of single-payer health care, Shumlin asked lawmakers to join him in tackling four goals in coming months: to undertake a deep analysis of the current health care system and its costs; to focus on cost containment and health care reform that values quality over quantity; to examine which Vermonters lack affordable and adequate health care; and to start defining a shift from  a health care system built on premium fees to one financed by “ability to pay.”

Following his address, Sen. Claire Ayer (D-Addison) pressed Shumlin on the issue of public trust; to that, Shumlin walked the careful line between supporting the Affordable Care Act and distancing himself, and Vermont, from the federal health care reform.

“None of us would have designed health care reform exactly this way,” he said. “I’m not speaking against the Affordable Care Act when I say the obvious. We didn’t vote for it, we didn’t pass it, it wasn’t our view of reform, and what I just outlined is. So let’s do it right.”

Shumlin took some heat about the independent review from Rep. Mary Morrissey (R-Bennington), who wanted assurances that lawmakers would have access to the final report. But there wasn't much time for interrogation Tuesday morning; the governor’s visit with the two committees was brief, just 30 minutes, which meant lawmakers only squeezed in a few questions after Shumlin’s remarks.

“I’m glad to see him double down on his commitment to a universal, single-payer system,” said Rep. Chris Pearson (P-Burlington), after the morning’s testimony.

That sentiment was shared by Jerry Kilcourse, a Montpelier resident and staunch supporter of single-payer health care. “This is why I voted for him,” said Kilcourse. “The governor made a good point that a website is not health care reform.” 

Of course, not everyone was thrilled by Shumlin’s remarks. Darcie Johnston, who directs Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, had a seat front-and-center in the packed committee room. Johnston’s group has been outspoken in its opposition to Vermont’s transition to single-payer health care.

“It’s full steam ahead,” said Johnston. She said she’s pleased to see the governor put more resources toward Vermont Health Connect, but worries that putting Miller in that job could leave the state without someone “steering the economic development ship.”

“We are not an island, we are not a country. We are a state,” said Johnston. “And people can take their lives and businesses elsewhere where they can afford to live and grow their businesses.”

Photo by Kathryn Flagg 

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