Single-payer supporters dominate public hearing

March 15, 2011

By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau
MONTPELIER — When Kate Farrington’s mother lost her job, Farrington lost her health insurance.

The young woman from Brattleboro is now confronting the relapse of a gynecological condition that, left untreated, could result in lifelong pain and an inability to have children.

Since Farrington lacks the thousands of dollars needed to pay for treatment, “my life could be devastated at a time when the future was starting to look promising.”

“I’m not the only one,” Farrington said, fighting through tears. “There are thousands of us. People shouldn’t die because they don’t have insurance.”

At a public hearing Monday night on the single-payer health care proposal now under consideration in Montpelier, residents from across Vermont used stories of personal tragedy to expose shortcomings in the state’s health care system.

Though a handful voiced opposition to the reform proposal, residents by and large urged lawmakers to move ahead with a plan to deliver universal coverage through a publicly financed system. The testimony will be fresh on the minds of legislators as they prepare to hold a critical vote later this week on the single-payer bill.

“The problem I see in the current system is it does not cover everyone equally at a price we can all afford,” said Diana Scholl, a chaplain who attends to the families of dying patients at Porter Medical Center in Middlebury.

While well-insured patients enjoy unfettered access to the range of hospital services, Scholl said, others are denied treatment that would otherwise alleviate their symptoms.

“This very basic lack of fairness and equity is very hard for health care workers themselves to deal with,” she said. “It has nothing to do with whether drugs or surgery are available — we have it all. It’s just about the money … Health care workers are put in an immoral and unethical position.”

Monday’s hearing was as much a testimony to the organizing power of the grassroots “Health Care is a Human Right Campaign” as it was an indictment of the current health care system. More than half of the people offering testimony to members of the House and Senate committees on health care were affiliated with the campaign, an offshoot of the Vermont Workers’ Center.

The campaign is urging lawmakers to adopt a version of the single-payer legislation unveiled last month by Gov. Peter Shumlin. Though the bill wouldn’t implement a single-payer system until sometime after 2014, it establishes the framework through which the system would one day be run.

The hearing, conducted on Vermont Interactive Television, used television screens to link residents and legislators at 15 sites across the state.

Sabra Ewing said Vermont stands to save money if it offers universal preventive care to people like her. The Vershire woman is undergoing expensive treatment for stage-three cancer that would have been caught far earlier if not for the high-deductible insurance plan that compelled her to put off regular medical exams.

“I guess it’s lose-lose, because I went from someone with a curable type of deadly cancer to one who must receive care of top expense every three months and may not survive,” she said.

Chuck Greenwood of Newport voiced the concerns of the minority by raising questions about how the state planned to fund its single-payer effort. Greenwood said he’s all for universal coverage, and that the state should find a way to extend benefits to the 48,000 residents who lack insurance.

“The inequitable way this is going to be financed bothers me,” Greenwood said.

Others said lawmakers should move with caution as they pursue health care reform. John Bowman, vice president of a professional services company that employs 70 people, said he isn’t necessarily opposed to a publicly financed system.

“One of our biggest challenges … comes once a year when it’s time for health insurance renewals,” Bowman said at the Randolph hearing site.

But if the costs of the new health-care system to his company outstrip what it pays for employee benefits right now, he said, the reforms could hurt business.

“We know the system is not working and unaffordable and we need to do something,” he said. “But we need to do it smart and effective to make sure the outcome is beneficial for everyone.”
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