Ellen Oxfeld, Middlebury

When Governor Peter Shumlin signs the new health care bill into law on May 26th, many people may wonder how we came to this point. Why is it that Vermont is the first state to pass legislation that acknowledges that health care is a public good, and that the best route toward universal access and cost control is to create a health care system that is publicly funded?  There are still many more steps to go before we reach this goal.  Nonetheless, it is worth pausing at this important juncture to ask what makes Vermont different.

One thing that makes Vermont different is that the campaign for single payer in this state has been broad based and involved multiple organizations and thousands of individuals at the grassroots level over almost two decades.

The Vermont Workers Center (VWC) is one of the groups that have done a superb job of organizing people from 2008 onwards – focusing on health care as a human right.   Their organizing built upon the earlier and still continuing efforts of many other individuals and groups — creating unparalleled energy around this issue. In 2009, for instance, public meetings were held all over the state on health care and for single payer.  Many were part of the VWC campaign.  Other meetings were organized by independent groups including religious and community groups. Senator Bernie Sanders also held many health care related events around the state.

These 2009 meetings followed on the heels of a 2008 campaign for H304 – a single payer bill for hospitals. Hundreds of people traveled to the statehouse for several large events to advocate for H304 in the winter of 2008, organized by Vermont Health Care for All (VTHCA). Additionally, Dr. Deb Richter of VTHCA traveled the state and spoke at over 400 forums between 2000 and the present, introducing the concept of single payer to numerous citizen groups.

Earlier in the decade, in 2005, former state Senator Cheryl Rivers, in coordination with Richard Davis of Vermont Citizens Campaign for Health organized for single payer on town meeting day, and succeeded in getting many towns to vote in support of the concept.

Large statewide demonstrations for single payer have been organized by VTHCA (1200 people at the Statehouse in 2002) and the VWC (over a 1000 people coming to their May Day rallies in 2009, 10 and 11).  Smaller demonstrations for single payer also occurred almost every year at the statehouse, and in other venues – such as a 2009 rally of several hundred people at the Obama administration’s regional health care summit in Burlington.  Unions and even business groups have also organized around the concept: several groups come to mind here including the AFL-CIO and other unions, Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, and even the League of Women Voters.

Because so many groups have been involved, and so many citizens have weighed in on the issue, this state was fertile ground for lawmakers and candidates who advocated for single payer. Not all of them won, but they helped make the issue prominent.  I don’t have space to list everyone here, but Anthony Pollina and Cheryl Rivers come to mind. And, of course, Governor Shumlin made single payer prominent in his campaign and won, and Senator Bernie Sanders has long advocated for single payer and helped legitimize the reasons for it to a broad public.  We should also not forget that it was Peter Shumlin, as Senate President Pro-Tem, who first contacted Professor William Hsiao in December 2009 for the express purpose of inviting him to testify in the upcoming legislative session.

All these efforts, and probably many more than space allows me to include, made for an ideal scenario in advancing the cause of single payer in the legislative agenda.  Because Vermont is a state where citizens really get involved in issues, it is still possible to see legislation pass that advances the common good.