Human Right to Health Care Activists Demand Strengthening of Vermont’s Reform Bill

The struggle in Vermont for a universal, publicly financed health reform bill is intensifying.  The Healthcare Is a Human Right Campaign rallied at the Statehouse on Friday, April 15, to demand that Senators put the bill back on track, in line with the original intent to create a universal health care system that provides health care as a public good for all. Over the past week, the Senate Health Committee had accepted several changes pushed by the business and insurance lobby. 

To affirm the original goal of H.202, the Healthcare Is a Human Right Campaign testified to the Senate Finance Committee and urged Senators to adopt the following amendment:

"The state of Vermont must provide healthcare as a public good and, within a reasonable time, act as the primary payer for healthcare coverage for all Vermonters, to the extent permitted by federal law, to ensure equal access in a unified risk pool."

The Campaign’s letter to Senators says:  “We do not need another study bill, and we do not need private insurance companies that profit from our health. We are not willing to sacrifice our health or the health of our communities to the profits of powerful vested interests.”

The concerns of human rights activists were widely reported in the media. Scroll down for examples of media coverage, as well as background information on the attempts by the big business and insurance lobby to scuttle the bill.

The Senate floor debate of the H.202 is expected this week, followed by a conference committee to reconcile the Senate and House versions.

Health reform activists push for addition to bill
The Times Argus, April 16, 2011
MONTPELIER — Activists worried that the health care reform bill pending in the Legislature has been watered down to please business interests came to the Statehouse on Friday to remind lawmakers of the “original intent” of the legislation.

The activists, who were part of the Vermont Workers’ Center’s “Health Care is a Human Right Campaign,” announced amendments they will propose to lawmakers that emphasize that the bill — known as H.202 — is about providing universal coverage and making sure health insurance is not a for-profit enterprise.

“H.202 must be improved, and we are here today to push for our ‘put people first amendment’ to strengthen the bill to make it clear that its goal is to make health care a public good and not a commodity,” said Peg Franzen, president of the Vermont Workers Center.

The group held its press conference two days after a Senate committee backed the bill with a 5-0 vote. The House has already approved the legislation, and the full Senate is expected to vote next week on the bill.

The legislation would lay the groundwork for a major health care overhaul in Vermont the Shumlin administration argues will lead the state to a single-payer system. Some lawmakers say the bill wouldn’t necessarily lead to a single-payer health care system.

Some of the activists at the Statehouse are unhappy with portions of the bill and say there has been too much emphasis on pleasing the business community and less on making sure every Vermonter receives health care coverage.

James Haslam, director of the Vermont Workers’ Center, mentioned in particular an amendment added to the bill at the insistence of Sen. Kevin Mullin, a Rutland County Republican and a member of the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare.

Under Mullin’s language, Vermont cannot make the leap to single-payer unless the financing is “sustainable,” overall cost reductions can be proven, provider reimbursements will be sufficient to retain the state’s medical workforce and the system will have a positive effect on Vermont’s economy. […]

“Unfortunately it places a whole lot of criteria, we will only do this if and if and if,” Haslam said. “And of course we need to have a system that works for Vermont, but the whole point of the health care being a human right is that there’s no criteria, there’s no variables. Everybody needs quality health care no matter what.”

[…] The Vermont Workers’ Center is proposing a list of amendments to the bill including one that reads: “The state of Vermont must provide health care as a public good and, within a reasonable time, act as the payer for health care coverage for all Vermonters.”

Vermont Senate prepares to debate health care bill
CBS Moneywatch/Associated Press, April 15, 2011
MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — A state Senate committee heard conflicting testimony Friday — urging lawmakers to go slower or get more ambitious — as the full Senate prepared to vote next week on a bill to push Vermont toward a single-payer health care system.

The small and ornate room where the Senate Finance Committee meets was packed Friday with business lobbyists and single-payer advocates, some of the latter wearing the red T-shirts of the Vermont Workers Center’s Health Care Is a Human Right campaign.

The bill under review would set up a health care marketplace, or "exchange," by 2014 to comply with the federal health reform law passed last year and, backers of the Vermont bill hope, to serve as a bridge to the state setting up a single-payer system.

The Workers Center had organized a Statehouse rally earlier in the day where speakers urged the crowd to continue to press lawmakers not to weaken a House-passed bill due for a vote in the Senate next week.

"H.202 must not be watered down just because insurance brokers and lobbyists are scaring businesses by saying single-payer is somehow bad for them," said Peg Franzen, president of the Workers Center. […]

Tug-of-war over health care bill intensifies
Anne Galloway, VTDigger, April 18, 2011
The Senate Finance Committee got it from all sides on Friday. The subject? H.202, the universal health care bill. Lobbyists and advocates across the spectrum (right to left) pitched amendments in a last-ditch attempt to shape the bill before it goes to the floor of the Senate this coming week.

In speed-dating mode, during 90 minutes of testimony, insurance brokers, representatives from business associations, lobbyists for doctors and insurers, and advocates for a single-payer health care style system converged on the committee to make their final pitches and complaints.

About a dozen individuals handed out written testimony and new draft amendments to the bill.

None of the aforementioned constituencies are happy with the latest iteration of H.202, as it emerged from the Senate Health and Welfare Committee on a 5-0 vote.

Members of Health and Welfare altered the bill to satisfy business interests, and the compromise has engendered resistance from all sides, as evidenced by the testimony Senate Finance heard on Friday.

[…] Business representatives who testified last Friday say the Senate’s changes to the bill don’t go far enough to protect them from regulations that they say could drive up their health care costs.

Single-payer advocates, on the other hand, say the bill is now slanted toward corporate interests and lawmakers have lost sight of the original intent of the bill, which, activists say, is to provide universal care to Vermonters. The Health Care is a Human Right Campaign held a press conference on Friday to publicize their amendments to the bill and insist that lawmakers “put people first.” […]

How are big business and the insurance industry seeking to thwart the reform effort? Read below the background on IBM’s lobbying campaign.

The IBM bill
Richard Davis, Brattleboro Reformer, April 13, 2011
[…] History has taught us that when IBM wants something to happen or not to happen they get their way. They don’t like the current health care bill that is on a fast track to the governor’s desk so they have put together a coalition of large business owners to turn the bill into something they can live with.

Their rhetoric is right out of the right wing playbook, saying they are in favor of health care reform and recognizing that it needs to happen. Then they go on to detail all of things wrong with the bill, which is just about every major piece of it.

The IBM coalition is lobbying (or is it bullying?) the governor and the Legislature to make sure the health care bill turns out the way they want it. They may say that are only looking out for what is best for Vermonters, but what they really want is to protect their bottom line at all costs.

Their proposed amendments to the bill transform the entire health reform process into a plan based on the fatally flawed free market insurance model while allowing self-insured businesses to not have to be part of the shared responsibility for a system of health insurance that would provide a basic safety net for all Vermonters.

The IBM coalition amendments make it clear that IBM and its allies have no concern for the majority of Vermonters who own and work for all of the small businesses in Vermont, that are the foundation of the state’s economy. […]

IBM worker disagrees with management on health reform

Burlington Free Press, April 15, 2011
MONTPELIER — Earl Mongeon of Westford, an IBM employee for the past 32 years, came to the Statehouse on Thursday to tell lawmakers that employees at the Essex plant didn’t necessarily agree with management’s opposition to a single-payer health care system.

"We don’t understand why IBM is trying to tell our elected officials that Vermont shouldn’t have universal health care," Mongeon said. He is vice president of the local chapter of Alliance@IBM, a worker and retiree advocacy organization. "Why have they not even asked what their own employees think first?"

[…] Mongeon said the local chapter of Alliance@IBM supports universal health care for Vermont and has been part of the Healthcare is a Human Right Campaign sponsored by the Vermont Workers’ Center.

Mongeon, joined by two former IBM employees, also suggested the health insurance plans offered by IBM weren’t as affordable as management portrayed.

While monthly costs for employees range from zero to $75, Mongeon said premiums jump steeply if family members are added and the plans require high upfront spending before coverage begins.

IBM employees feel the same health care pressures as many other Vermonters, Mongeon said. That’s why "we need to move forward to universal health care."

A Friendly Word Of Advice From Vermont Daily Briefing [VDB] To Governor Shumlin: Beware The Deal
By Philip Baruth [Vermont State Senator], April 11, 2011

[…] Why is it troubling to see IBM muscling its way into an arrangement that will allow IBM to control its own costs, and by logical extension, to determine whether those costs have in fact been controlled? Because it begins at the state level what came to be called “opt-out” at the federal level: individual entities, in this case companies, bargaining to be left out of the grand bargain.

[…] Not too hard to imagine … a provision that would allow IBM to carve itself a place outside whatever system results from the next two years of reform. And that would be a dangerous precedent, to allow one large employer to set its own terms, to be treated in effect as a stand-alone entity.

Because the whole point of single-payer, the philosophy that has brought it to prominence and to the verge of passage, is that no one stands alone, and that we’re better off both morally and financially when we recognize that central truth, and organize a reformed system accordingly. […]