First Universal Health Care Bill in U.S. Marks Success of Vermont’s Human Rights Movement


On May 5 the Vermont House followed the Senate in passing the final version of a health reform bill that creates a path for a universal, publicly financed health care system in Vermont. Governor Peter Shumlin has confirmed he will sign the bill into law.

This makes Vermont the first state in the country to move toward a universal health care system that will provide health care as a public good for everyone. Legislators and advocates alike have compared Vermont’s role to that of the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, which half a century ago spearheaded the establishment of universal health care in Canada.

The bill states that Vermont will create a publicly financed health care system, Green Mountain Care, to provide comprehensive, high-quality coverage as a public good for all Vermont residents, regardless of income, health status, or employment. Green Mountain Care will be implemented once the requirements of the federal health reform law have been fulfilled, along with several other conditions imposed by the bill. Some key decisions have been postponed to future legislative sessions, including the development of a financing mechanism for the system and the design of a health benefits package.

The pioneering nature of Vermont’s health reform has its roots in a people’s movement, which caused reform efforts to be driven by principles, rather than political calculation, industry interests, or professional advocates and lobbyists. While strong attempts were mounted to divert and hijack the reform process, especially by large corporations and the insurance industry, it was the growing vision of health care as a human right that captured the public imagination and created the political space for action by the administration and legislature. Observers largely credit this achievement to the grassroots organizing by the Healthcare Is a Human Right Campaign, led by the Vermont Workers’ Center, which engaged many thousands of ordinary Vermonters in demanding their human right to health care.

The Healthcare Is a Human Right Campaign has built a broad-based people’s movement guided by principles, such as universality and equity, rather than by specific policy or legislative proposals, such as single-payer. By shifting the focus from cost containment (which has dominated debates on health care and other public goods) to people’s collective needs and rights, the campaign placed people at the center of policy and practice, challenging the powers that be. When viewed as a human right, health care becomes a unifying concern for everyone, not just for the uninsured, or for individual “consumers” struggling to pay their bills, or for workers seeking to hold on to benefits. This unity the campaign achieved at an organizing level has helped to embed human rights principles in public and political discourse, which in turn has advanced the goal of treating health care (and potentially other human needs) as a public good, financed through taxation, rather than a market commodity.


The success of this emerging grassroots organizing model – led by the people, inclusive, based on human rights principles – became particularly clear when pressure from the Healthcare Is a Human Right Campaign prompted legislators to drop a last-minute amendment that would have excluded undocumented people from universal health care. The Campaign mobilized hundreds of Vermonters to stand up for the human rights principle of universality, and after days of constituents’ phone calls, protests, and a large rally on May 1st, the exclusionary amendment was struck.

Vermonters clearly set an example with their steadfastness and unflinching readiness to take a moral stance and reject the effort to divide the community along lines of race, ethnicity or national origin. Their stance raises the bar for people elsewhere when confronted with the use of immigration as a wedge issue.

There is no doubt that strong solidarity and a principled stance will be needed as the struggle for universal health care continues, in Vermont and beyond. If the deliberate exclusion of undocumented people presented a clear line in the sand, the maneuvering of private insurance companies has been harder to detect and defeat. The industry and its corporate allies are a formidable opponent, with deep pockets and well-trained patience. In Vermont’s bill, private insurance companies, whose business model depends on restricting our access to care, managed to keep a foot in the door. This means that the development of the new system’s financing mechanism may well be the most important struggle yet to come. Unless Green Mountain Care will be funded as a public good, through equitable contributions from all of Vermont’s people and businesses, the system could be downgraded to a “public option”, torn apart by opt-outs before it even starts.

Well aware of these challenges, human rights campaigners are prepared to take on corporate forces. While the Healthcare Is a Human Right Campaign does not rely on legislative actions to boost its organizing, it has grown with each legislative success. As people across the country look closer at Vermont’s most recent achievement, it may inspire them to help build the movement for health care as a human right. Such an impact would rival the significance of the universal health care bill itself. 

(Photo of rally on May 1, 2011, by Dylan Kelley, Vermont Workers’ Center)


Other media coverage of the bill’s passage recognizing the crucial role of the Healthcare Is a Human Right Campaign:

Vermont Ever Closer to Single-Payer Healthcare
Laura Flanders, The Nation, May 9, 2011

[…] Mary Gerisch of the Vermont Workers Center joined us last month on GRITtv to explain the grassroots organizing campaign that finally resulted in victory in the state legislature. She noted that two years ago, they were told that it was not politically possible to pass single-payer legislation, but they didn’t take no for an answer.

The insurance companies will no doubt keep fighting this bill—even one small state single-payer plan could provide a powerful example for the rest of the country. […]

But for now, Vermont—and all of us–should be celebrating the proof that a grassroots campaign can lead to victory for single-payer advocates and progressives in general. We’re that much closer to recognizing health care as a human right. And much closer to the big fight which will show really, which side our for-profit insurers are on. Keep an eye on Vermont, people. An alternative model. . . the US has invaded small countries for less.

Adventure in Democracy

Editorial, The Times Argus, May 5, 2011

Passage of historic health care legislation by the Vermont Legislature puts Vermont on the road to reform that could chart a new path for the nation.

Fundamental to the new plan is a concept effectively promoted by a grass-roots campaign that persistently drummed home its message: Health care is a human right.

To embrace that idea is to set in motion changes that alter profoundly the way that people receive health care. Health care becomes something to expect as a citizen — like public education or police protection — rather than something one might or might not be able to afford, like a new car or washing machine. […]

Meaningful Strides for Health Care, but a Long Way to Go
Rep. Chris Pearson, May 9, 2011

[…] 2011 saw a seismic shift. Suddenly single-payer was the talk of the town. […]

But remember too that a lot went into the shift, more than just electing the right person governor. Three years ago the VT Workers Center focused their sights on health care and refused to take no for an answer. In large part, they made the current debate possible. Every single public forum, every single day of testimony and deliberation in committee, on every editorial page and more – the health care is a human right campaign was present. The impact was that law makers could honestly say they keep hearing from folks who want this to happen while few opponents bothered to show up.

It is a model of social change that we need to see more of. Progressives have softened the ground for real health care reform for decades. And eventually, after years of loud, sustained public pressure, mainstream political leaders pick up the banner and run with it. […]

Also listen to a podcast with Rep. Pearson and Sen. Pollina on Equal Time radio in a discussion moderated by Traven Leyshon.

Like Health Care Reform? So Does the Vermont Workers’ Center

Kevin J. Kelly, Seven Days, May 11, 2011

[…] The VWC’s relentless activism helped push Vermont where no state has gone before: down the path to guaranteeing affordable and comprehensive coverage for every one of its residents. […]

Read more here.