Mixed Reactions In Wake Of Shumlin's Single Payer Surprise

December 18, 2014

Vermont Public Radio: Gov. Peter Shumlin’s decision to abandon his plan for single-payer health care has spurred feelings of relief, anger, surprise and confusion. And the political bombshell has everyone trying to figure out what’s next for health care reform.

About 60 protestors made their way down Main Street in Montpelier on Thursday, carrying cardboard effigies of the same Democratic governor they worked to elect not so long ago.

These demonstrators had stuck by Shumlin politically for one reason, and one reason only: his promise to deliver to Vermont a single-payer health care system. So when the governor announced Wednesday that he’d decided not to move forward with a publicly financed program after all, the news did not sit well.

'Like a sucker punch'

“I just got the news yesterday about the surprise Shumlin announcement that he’s backing out, and it just really felt like a sucker punch. So I loaded up the baby in the car and came out – we’re from St. J,” said Melissa Davis-Bourque.

Her 2-year-old daughter, Emmeline, in tow, Davis-Bourque said she and other single-payer supporters feel like they’ve been played.

“We felt like things were going to, you know, it was just a matter of time – 2014, we were going to have everything implemented. And now this sort of, this really going back on a promise, and feeling really, really lied to,” she said. “This is why I feel like Shumlin was elected, primarily, and for him to sort of go back is just unacceptable.”

But not all the reaction has been negative.

Tom Huebner, CEO of Rutland Regional Medical Center, says he listened with admiration as Shumlin delivered the big news yesterday.

“I think it was a genuine moment, and frankly I haven’t seen that out of that many politicians that many times in my life – that kind of direct, honest, 'I’m giving you bad news I don’t like based upon hard, cold facts,'” Huebner says.

Hospitals have long worried that a publicly financed health care system could tie their finances to volatile state revenues. Huebner says with single-payer out of the way, hospitals can dedicate themselves to the important work of payment reform.

“This does not mean health care reform is done,” he says. “It actually means health care reform is going to move forward in a more focused way. And that is something that we need to plan for and be part of.”

Business groups are mostly cheering the governor’s decision. Betsy Bishop, president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, says her members have are relieved to see the prospect of an 11.5 percent payroll tax vanish. But she says lawmakers must now turn their attention to the state’s troubled online insurance exchange.

Small businesses are forced to buy plans sold on the exchange, and it was a mandate lawmakers imposed in part to lay the groundwork for a publicly financed system. With single-payer now off the table, Bishop says it’s time to revisit that mandate.

"The uncertainty surrounding a $2 billion price tag on a health care system in an economy that is not growing was creating a situation where small businesses couldn't feel comfortable in reinvesting in their business." - Shawn Shouldice, Vermont director for the National Federation of Small Businesses
“Businesses with 50 to 100 employees will be forced to us the exchange as well, and yet the system does not work for them,” Bishop says. “And so we would suggest that that mandate not be implemented.”

Shawn Shouldice, Vermont director for the National Federation of Small Businesses, says the business community had been working for years to demonstrate to Shumlin the fallacies in his single-payer logic. And while she says it’s gratifying to see him come around to their way of thinking, she says damage has been done to the business climate in the meantime.

Shouldice’s organization is calling for the repeal of the single-payer legislation that, in 2011, set Vermont on a path toward a publicly financed system.

“The uncertainty surrounding a $2 billion price tag on a health care system in an economy that is not growing was creating a situation where small businesses couldn’t feel comfortable in reinvesting in their business, making decisions not to hire and expand their business,” Shouldice says. “I think it has done some damage.”

Lawmakers' reactions

Bradford Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas, the newly elected House Majority Leader, says she was “disappointed” Wednesday to see the governor impose a “hard pause on a project that I have been working on for many years.”

But she says she wasn't too surprised, given the difficulty of the task. And while the Legislature had planned on devoting considerable time in 2015 to vetting the governor’s single-payer proposal, she says it’s primary focus remains unchanged: Vermont Health Connect.

"I think largely the work load is going to be exactly what I always thought it was going to be. We have to get Vermont Health Connect working for Vermonters now." - Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas, House majority leader
“I think largely the work load is going to be exactly what I always thought it was going to be. We have to get Vermont Health Connect working for Vermonters now,” Copeland-Hanzas says. “We can’t continue to pretend that a dysfunctional enrollment or billing platform is acceptable to Vermonters.”

Hanzas says lawmakers must also find ways to make insurance more affordable for the Vermonters still struggling to afford it. With no universal plan on the horizon to guarantee quality coverage for every resident of the state, Copeland-Hanzas says, the Legislature will have to go about finding other ways of tackling the insurance affordability problem.

“Even folks who are able to get a premium tax credit are still … facing a great deal of out-of-pocket expense and with that are finding barriers to care,” she says. “And one of the very real reasons we are looking at universal publicly funded health care is because the insurance model is I think always going to create barriers to care.”

Back in Montpelier, single-payer supporters are pondering their next move. It likely won’t involve Shumlin. And it remains to be seen what kind of political price the governor will pay for shelving his signature policy proposal.