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Explore our coverage of government and politics.

A Personal Health Crisis Prompts Vermont's House Speaker To Seek Expanded Coverage

Andy Duback
Shap Smith recently abandoned his campaign for governor after his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Vermont’s Speaker of the House Shap Smith has been speaking out recently about a painful personal issue that forced him to abandon his campaign for governor of Vermont: his wife Melissa’s recent breast cancer diagnosis. 

That reality has led not just to a suspended political campaign, but to a call to expand and simplify health care coverage for Vermonters. And Smith isn't pulling any punches about his frustrations with the current health care system. 

Smith spoke with VPR's Mitch Wertlieb about his personal experience this year with the health care system, as well as his plan to find a better solution.

On his wife Melissa’s health:

“We are really lucky. We have gotten great care at the UVM Medical Center, as well as at Copley [Hospital]” Smith said. “She's doing all right. We're in the middle of chemo and during that time there are ups and downs, as many Vermonters know — because many Vermonters experience this.” 

Smith says finding out about his wife’s diagnosis was “a very difficult thing to absorb.” 

“What became clear was what was going to have to be the focus of what the family was dealing with over the next coming weeks and months,” said Smith. “Then there's just the initial uncertainty about what the diagnosis looks like.” 

On navigating the existing health care system:

Smith has publicly expressed frustration at how challenging it can be to navigate the current health care system. He says it adds extra stress to what is already an emotionally stressful experience.

“As somebody who thinks they have a pretty good handle on things, it is very, very difficult to figure out what you have to pay, what is owed, who it goes to, it's just it's a very stressful process,” Smith explained. “That is built onto another stressful process, which is just … dealing with the health care issues themselves and all the family issues that come along with that that.”

Smith admitted that he and his family were better prepared than many Vermonters, a fact that only adds to his frustration with the system. 

“I know that we're lucky, in that we have a little money put aside so that if we needed to make up for the deductible, we could do that,” he said, “but for a lot of Vermonters, they just don't have that possibility.”

Smith says two major health issues in his family this year have changed his perspective: His wife tore her Achilles tendon in May, and then there was the breast cancer diagnosis.

“And we have a [health] plan that ended in the middle of the year, so we've had two deductibles that we've had to meet in this particular calendar year.”

Smith says that experience of trying to figure out what his family owes and what is covered by insurance, as well as having to work through how to pay the bill “has given me extra insight into why we need a more simplified system.” 

On Smith’s proposed expansion of Dr. Dinosaur:

Smith wants to expand the popular health program to include Vermonters up to the age of 26. The program currently covers children and teens up to age 19. But critics, including Vermont's house minority leader Don Turner, say the expansion is simply too expensive. 

Smith says he understand the concerns, and has proposed a study to find out what is most cost effective for Vermonters.  

“The minority leader does bring up a legitimate issue, and what I have backed is a study to see whether this expansion would actually save Vermonter’s money,” Smith said.

“I think what people forget is that Dr. Dinosaur is one of the most successful public health programs that we've ever put in place in the state of Vermont. It made sure that the majority of Vermont’s kids had health care, even if their parents didn’t, and even if their parents had high deductible plans. So they had access without having to worry about whether they could pay for it or not.” 

Smith hopes that the state can expand that same service to all Vermont kids.

“Because even if you make $60,000 a year or more, and … you're outside of the current Dr. Dinosaur program,” he explained. “If you have a high deductible plan, say a $6,500 deductible, that really causes you to question whether you're going to take your kid to the doctor not.” 

Smith says research into the proposed expansion, to make sure Vermont serves as many as possible with the most cost-effective system, is worth the effort.  

“We spend money looking at different ways that we could do things all the time. We do that both in the public sector and in the private sector if we have the possibility of approving health care outcomes,” Smith said.

“Making this state more attractive for young people because you don't have to go out and buy health insurance, and the net impact is that it would cost less — I think that's a study worth doing.” 

On what’s next:

“I will return as House Speaker for this next session, and as I said before I do not plan to run for the house again or for speaker,” he said.

“I don't know what's next. We've got a lot of health care appointments and stuff like that and the kids are doing skiing and basketball and have activities so it's going to be a busy, busy winter for us and then we'll figure out what's going on after the treatments are done.” 

Since announcing the end of his gubernatorial campaign due to his wife’s diagnosis, Smith says he and his family have received a “remarkable amount of love and support.” 

“The beautiful thing about Vermont is the community comes together,” Smith said. “When I announced I was going to suspend my campaign, [suddenly] our fridge was full and we had flowers all over the house and it's just been a remarkable, remarkable amount of love and support. And I thank you to everybody that's provided it.”

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
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