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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Senate President Wants Health Reform Contingency If Single Payer Falters

AP File/Toby Talbot
Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell speaks during a caucus in November, 2012, in Montpelier.

Since winning the governor’s seat in 2010, Peter Shumlin has pledged to make Vermont the first state in the country with a single-payer health care system. But a key legislative ally now says the proposal might not be as politically viable as Shumlin seems to believe. And Senate President John Campbell says it’s time to start putting together a contingency plan.

Shumlin has backed off on his promise to deliver a publicly funded plan by January of 2017. But while the timeline may have moved back, Shumlin says he’ll still reach the goal.

Singe payer may not "be politically viable in this legislative body, due to the costs involved." -Senate President John Campbell

Campbell, however, isn’t so sure. And he says Vermont can’t be putting all its health care eggs in the single-payer basket.

“The governor and the administration have their sights set on this single-payer, and one that is publicly financed through a myriad of different way,” Campbell said Tuesday. “I believe that right now, after the due diligence that has been done by not only the Legislature, but also by some of the people in the administration, to me it demonstrates that that may not be something that would be politically viable in this legislative body, due to the costs involved.”

Campbell says his concerns center primarily on whether taxpayers can sustain a universal insurance program that provides top-notch benefits to every Vermonter. Cost analyses estimate that lawmakers will need to raise as much as $2.2 billion in new taxes to support the publicly financed program.

“From what I see right now about the price tag that’s associated with … the financing for a single-payer system, I have my concerns,” Campbell says.

Shumlin says the the new single-payer taxes would be accompanied by commensurate reductions in health insurance premiums, and that the tradeoff will benefit the vast majority of residents.

Campbell says he understands that logic. But the Windsor County Democrat says the prospect of imposing a payroll tax on Vermont employers – one of the funding mechanisms on which Shumlin has said the new system will necessarily rely – might not sit well with the majority of legislators in Montpelier.

Given the challenges ahead, Campbell says the Legislature needs to begin putting together an alternate health care reform plan, in the event single-payer fails.

“I am really at the point where I want to make sure that we have a place to go if this doesn’t work out, you know,  the single-payer itself,” Campbell says.

Campbell says a wide-ranging bill being put together in the Senate will set in motion a process to explore those contingencies. Campbell says the legislation will force lawmakers to double-check the assumptions built in to the single-payer proposal. And he says lawmakers will look at how the state can deliver high quality, affordable coverage to all Vermonters even if they decide not to adopt a public financing model.

The Legislature earlier this year commissioned an outside expert to help it vet various aspects of the administration’s health care reform initiative. House Speaker Shap Smith said the analyst was hired to ensure that lawmakers can perform their own due diligence on the public-financing plan, and not rely entirely on information provided them by the administration.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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