Vermonters are as close to winning “single-payer” health care legislation as residents of any U.S. state have ever been, but they are fighting for every inch as they near the goal line.
On Tuesday the Vermont Senate passed a bill that activists hope will be a big stride towards health care for all. The House had already passed a similar bill.
Activists are dominating legislative hearings with their message that health care is a human right, but business interests—including IBM, the power company Entergy, and health insurer MVP—are pouring resources into weakening the legislation.
In the Senate, a poison pill was added in the eleventh hour: undocumented workers would be excluded from coverage. “Farmworkers need health care, too,” said James Haslam of the Vermont Workers Center. “We are not Arizona!”
Many undocumented immigrants work year-round in Vermont’s dairy industry, as well as during the state’s short harvest season. Vermont Workers Center activists said that if the language stayed in, it would be the first time Vermont had officially discriminated against people on the basis of their immigration status. They vowed to fight the provision when House and Senate members meet to reconcile their versions next week.
A big health care march is planned in Montpelier on Sunday, May 1. Fifteen hundred marched last year, and activists are heavily pressuring legislators. “We need to move forward now,” the Vermont Workers Center told supporters. “We will not accept excuses any longer.”
The final bill is expected to pass before the legislature adjourns May 6. It would then go to Governor Peter Shumlin, who made single payer the cornerstone of his election campaign last fall.
For months, community members and union nurses have been testifying and marching for the bill, which would guarantee comprehensive health care to all Vermonters. With “single payer,” all health care bills would be paid out of one public fund, rather than a tangle of private insurers looking to boost their bottom lines.
Two hundred medical students from around the country converged on the Capitol in Montpelier March 26 in their short white coats chanting “Everybody in, nobody out” to the rhythm of a brass ensemble. One carried a sign: “Vermont Single Payer—Show California How It’s Done,” referencing that state’s years-long fight to pass such a bill.
Opponents have warned that doctors will leave the state if the bill is enacted, but when Shumlin asked the crowd if they would come to the state to practice medicine under the new system, the aspiring doctors cheered.
Disgusted with the capitulation to private insurers that marked last year’s national health care reform, single-payer advocates across the country have been inspired by the Vermont effort. The national legislation is expected to leave 23 million uninsured, according to Physicians for a National Health Program.
In Canada, comprehensive health care started in Saskatchewan, a largely rural province with 3 percent of Canada’s population. U.S. single-payer advocates hope the power of a good example could cause a chain reaction here, despite Vermont’s tiny size.
Organizers used the framework “health care is a human right” in all their campaigning, which included five principles: universality, equity, accountability, transparency, and participation.
After years of surveys, town meetings, and postcard drives to representatives, when the Vermont House held public hearings in February, single-payer advocates came out by the hundreds to speak at 15 locations around the state.
So few citizens spoke against the bill that the Senate rearranged its hearings to try to find more opponents. But when testimonies were taken by alternating “pro” and “con,” opponents couldn’t fill the “con” slots.
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