Update from Vermont: The Struggle for Public Health Care Financing Continues
In the six dramatic weeks since Vermont’s governor attempted to pull the plug on universal, publicly financed health care, the Healthcare Is a Human Right Campaign has come a long way and managed to put the financing debate back at center stage. After his surprise announcement on December 17, 2014, Governor Shumlin released his financing plan for Green Mountain Care to the public, yet noted that he would not be recommending his proposal to the legislature. The Campaign immediately responded with a statement and op-ed, submitted a public records request for release of all data, and starting preparing its own proposal for equitable financing.
Importantly, the Campaign mobilized large numbers of members and supporters in Vermont and nationally in preparation for a day of action at the Statehouse. Bolstered by a national letter of support signed by over 60 organizations, the campaign turned out in force on inauguration day, January 8, for a powerful rally inside the statehouse, calling on legislators to act on public health care financing and demanding a public hearing. The day culminated in an act of civil disobedience, a sit-in on the floor of the House chamber, and led to the arrest of 29 campaign members. This determined action for justice and human rights brought the ongoing health care crisis to the attention of elected officials and the media in a direct and visceral way. It kicked off a vigorous debate about the state of our democracy, the role of civil disobedience, and the importance of equitable health care financing. It brought both scrutiny to the Vermont Workers’ Center and national attention to the campaign (including coverage in Democracy Now! and Common Dreams).
Rev. Dr. William Barber II, architect of the Moral Mondays movement, issued a letter of support and called on people of faith to join him, and Steven Hawkins, Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, stated that “Health care is a human right and a public good, not a commodity. All communities, rich and poor, should have access to comprehensive, quality treatment and service. Amnesty International USA supports the Healthcare is a Human Right Campaign in Vermont and urges full support for the residents of Vermont who are struggling to protect this right.” AIUSA was joined by other groups across the country – including the Southern Maine Workers’ Center, Put People First-PA and NESRI – in sending statements of support.
Campaign members reflected in op-eds on the reasons for taking direct action, highlighting the inequities of the current system. A week after the sit-in, faith leaders held a press conference at the Statehouse in support of the Campaign, evoking Dr. King’s legacy of civil disobedience in the face of persistent injustice. Their call for a moral economy that meets everyone’s needs was pointedly ignored by Governor Shumlin, whose budget address that same day was denounced by the Vermont Human Rights Council (which includes the VWC), which instead demanded “a budget and a healthcare financing plan that start with people’s needs and raise money equitably to meet those needs.”
On January 29, the deadline for public hearings demanded by the sit-in protestors, the table finally turned, and equitable financing topped the agenda of a joint hearing convened by the House and Senate Health Committees. The Campaign testified at the hearing, making the case for equitable income and payroll taxes to fund universal health care in a preview of its financing proposal. The subsequent press conference at the statehouse, held jointly with a supportive senator, was well received in the media, which reported on aspects of the Campaign’s forthcoming proposal. Legislators’ tone started changing, full public hearings on health care financing now appear within reach, and legislative sponsors have come forward for a financing bill proposed by the Campaign. Green Mountain Care is back on the table.