With single payer shelved, Progressives may shelve Shumlin

January 01, 2015

Rutland Herald: The political ascendance of Peter Shumlin came thanks in part to support from the Progressive Party. But the Democratic governor’s decision to shelve single-payer health care last week could shatter that alliance.

One of the first calls Shumlin made after announcing his stunning reversal on single-payer health care was to Burlington Rep. Chris Pearson. Pearson is a leader of the Vermont Progressive Party, a political organization that has long pushed for a universal, publicly financed health care system. And Pearson made clear to the governor that he was not pleased.

“Well, let’s just say that I gave him a solid piece of my mind right off the bat, so he was quickly trying to explain himself,” Pearson says.

The alliance between Shumlin and the Progressives has always been a fragile one. But the governor’s support for single payer has kept Progressives from mounting a political attack from the left.

Now that Shumlin has abandoned the central plank of the Progressive Party platform, the organization is rethinking its strategic calculus. And while the party was willing to sit out each of the last two gubernatorial elections, so as not to siphon liberal support away from Shumlin, Pearson says 2016 may be a different story.

“And so I think that there are many Progressives who are incredibly frustrated with the governor, and the next time the party goes to have one of those kinds of discussions about an election, I think it’s fair to say there will be perhaps more hostility or skepticism put on the table,” Pearson says.

Washington County Sen. Anthony Pollina says Progressives deserve credit for introducing the concept of single payer to the Vermont political arena. Pollina says he and his Progressive colleagues have long split with Shumlin on issues like tax policy. But he says they were willing to tolerate some of those differences because they thought they’d found in Shumlin someone to carry the single-payer banner.

“So Progressives traditionally have lent that voice to the debate and have created those priorities. And maybe it was a mistake to sit out those elections and not have the Progressive voice there. But I don’t think we’ll make that mistake again,” Pollina says.

Morgan Daybell, vice chairman of the Vermont Progressive Party, says he had a bad feeling about Shumlin’s willingness to deliver on a single-payer proposal.

“I think just from having watched him for a couple of decades, but also with the financing plan being delayed and delayed and delayed, I think there was obviously some concern and questioning on a lot of our parts as to his commitment,” Daybell says.

Daybell, Pollina and Pearson say it will be awhile before any decisions are made about whether to field a Progressive candidate in the next election cycle. If they do, Shumlin will face a far more difficult re-election campaign, should he choose to run for a fourth term.

But Pearson says Progressives and Democrats who remain committed to the single-payer concept will try to move toward the goal of universal care.

Pearson says he wishes that rather than shelve single payer altogether, Shumlin might have instead called for a more gradual implementation. And he says he worries that Shumlin hasn’t just dropped the single-payer baton, but has set the entire health care reform movement back.

“And so I fear that the governor has kind of muddied the waters to the point that there will be fatigue in Montpelier to look at what remains a very, very serious challenge for affordability and sanity in our health care system,” Pearson says.

Progressives still hope to push a health reform agenda in January. Chittenden County Sen. Tim Ashe, a Democrat/Progressive, says he wants to come up with a plan before the end of the 2015 session to provide every Vermonter health coverage.