The Vermont Senate is discussing a bill S.39 that would make state legislators eligible for the state employees’ benefit plan at no cost to them. It would also provide legislators with child care reimbursement and pay for out-of-session work that is not currently compensated.
The bill’s goal is to make serving in the Legislature more attractive to Vermonters with young children, those with low incomes, and/or those without a source of health coverage. That makes sense. We would all benefit from having the most diverse Legislature possible. And it’s true that legislators work hard and put in long hours during the four months they serve in the Legislature, and that they work in an unpaid capacity for the rest of the year. Their salaries are relatively low, they receive no help with child care, and they must count on getting health coverage through other sources if that is available to them.
So, I have no objection to providing legislators with publicly funded, comprehensive health care coverage for themselves and their families. But I can’t for the life of me understand why those benefits shouldn’t extend to all Vermonters.
I say so having watched a Senate Government Operations Committee, at which several legislators testified as to why health coverage should be offered to them, free of charge and why this bill should move forward. The reasons offered apply to most Vermonters, not just legislators. People have to stay in jobs they don’t like or decline jobs they do want based on whether the jobs offer health care coverage.
They outlined many of the reasons why legislators decided to serve only because they were able to secure health care in some other way, like a spouse who has good health insurance through their job or from the employer for whom they worked when the Legislature was not in session. Again, these are problems many Vermonters deal with on a continuing basis. In fact, 44 percent of all Vermonters with health insurance under the age of 65 are under-insured — a major illness would lead to financial bankruptcy. Many people in this position avoid care, leading to worsening health and even premature death.
The final irony of S.39 is that it is being swiftly moved along in the legislative process, unlike legislation that would apply to all Vermonters. Another bill, H.156, that would implement publicly funded health care for all Vermonters, starting with primary care, is being completely ignored by health care leadership.
And this bill has 59 legislative sponsors. Backers of this bill were told “we don’t have time to take it up,” among a whole host of other excuses.
Yet it appears they have time to work on legislation to extend publicly funded health care to themselves. And if S.39 passes, the legislators would all be eligible for cost-free health care by January 2024.
Too bad the same cannot be said for the rest of Vermonters.
Dr. Richter is a practicing family physician and addiction medicine specialist. She lives in Montpelier.