Can single payer now proceed? Some doubt it

November 07, 2014

Rutland Herald

MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin’s near defeat coupled with the ouster of the House Health Care Committee chairman in Tuesday’s midterm election have some saying the governor’s single-payer health care proposal is no longer feasible in Vermont’s post-election political landscape.

But others, particularly advocates of Shumlin’s vision for health care reform, argue the political setback suffered by Shumlin and some Democrats in Tuesday’s election was the result of many factors, not a referendum on the idea.

Rather, they say, the bigger issue for Shumlin is the ongoing failure of Vermont Health Connect, the state’s online health insurance marketplace required under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Shumlin, according to results tallied by The Associated Press, holds a 2,095-vote lead, a little more than 1 percentage point, over Republican Scott Milne, a political neophyte. It’s a stunning rebuke for the two-term Democratic incumbent, who has relentlessly touted his commitment to pursuing the nation’s first state-level single-payer health care system.

Shumlin claimed victory in the race Wednesday, but the contest will end officially only when the newly elected Legislature selects a governor in January, as called for in Vermont’s constitution when no candidate secures 50 percent of the vote.

M i l n e i s r e p o r te d l y considering asking for a re c o u n t , a n o p t i o n afforded candidates when the margin is less than 2 percent.

In the meantime, political posturing is taking shape regarding health care reform and what the election means.

S h u m l i n, du r i n g h i s news conference Wednesday, promised to reassess his administration’s priorities for the upcoming legislative session. He spoke of continuing health care reform efforts to provide universal access to affordable, quality health care but did not mention single payer by name.

D a r c i e J o h n st o n , a n outspoken opponent of Shumlin’s plan and head of Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, said Tuesday was indeed a referendum on single payer and that Shumlin’s showing at the polls indicates voters do not want to proceed.

“It is clear that 53 percent of Vermonters said no,” she said, invoking the percentage of voters who didn’t back Shumlin. “That is clear.”

Republicans picked up nine seats in the House and two in the Senate, but still face Democratic majorities in both chambers.

Among the Democrats who lost their seats was Rep. Michael Fisher, of Lincoln, chairman of the House Health Care Committee, who helped craft Act 48 laying out the blueprint for Shumlin’s plan.

That is further evidence of the erosion of support, Johnston said.

Furthermore, she said, new members of the Legislature are not invested in the plan and are more likely to oppose it.

“The reality is, the votes have changed,” Johnston said. “There are 42 new members. They’re not all Republicans, but they are people who have not been part of this program, and they are going to be hard pressed to vote for something that doesn’t make sense, and certainly have to be considering their constituents.”

Peter Sterling, executive director of the advocacy group Vermont Leads, w h i c h s u p p o r t s s i n g l e payer, has a contrasting interpretation of the election results.

He said a number of c a n d i d a t e s w o n a f t e r campaigning in favor of single payer — including in Hardwick, Bennington, Manchester, Barre, Worcester, Winooski, Middletown Springs and Middlebury.

“I strongly feel that there were a lot of factors in the race,” Sterling said. “Having worked with a couple dozen candidates this cycle, nobody told me they were voting against single payer health care.”

D e m o c r a t s w h o l o s t include Reps. Michelle Fay and Bob South in St. Johnsbury and Rep. Mike McCarthy in St. Albans, who were seeking re-election in districts that have traditionally been difficult for Democrats, Sterling said.

“Even Shumlin’s main opponent, Scott Milne, did not campaign against single-payer health care,” he said. “He talked about Vermont Health Connect, which is very different.”

Ultimately, the decision on whether the state moves forward with a single-payer plan will rest with the Legislature.

Rep. Don Turner, R-Milton, the House minority leader, said his caucus will be a bit stronger in the next biennium but remains the minority by a wide margin. Still, he said he hopes the House Health Care Committee will include more Republicans than it currently does. He said he expects Democratic Speaker of the House Shap Smith will create a more balanced committee.

“We will, if I have anything to do about it, have more people on the Health Care Committee than we had last year,” Turner said. “With more people in the caucus we should be able to do that.”

Turner said the election shows general discontent with Shumlin.

“I don’t know what it specifically means. I think in general it means Vermonters are not happy with Gov. Shumlin’s management and his policies,” he said. “I don’t think that you can think this is some kind of mandate about single payer. I think it’s a kind of mandate against the Shumlin administration as a whole.”

Tu r n e r s a i d H o u s e Republicans will look to continue their role as the opposition party and scuttle any plan that is bad for the state.

“Knowing the governor, I believe that he will somehow try to move forward,” Turner said. “I was encouraged yesterday when I heard him say that he was humbled by voters. I hope that means he’s going to revisit these ideological experiments.”