Brattleboro Reformer

By Kelly Cummings

With lightning speed. That’s how quickly S.39 — An Act relating to compensation and benefits for members of the Vermont General Assembly, including health insurance — passed in the Senate. It didn’t hang on the wall or get sent to another committee to die. There were no hearings or studies done.

Heck, the legislators didn’t even have to rally on the Statehouse steps to get their own attention. Leadership must have liked S.39 because, as we all know, there’s not a bill that goes anywhere without their okay.

I really want to support S.39. Truth is, it’s the access to health insurance that’s the problem for me.

I can’t help but think of all the years Vermonters have been desperately trying to get the members of the Vermont General Assembly to help them with their healthcare needs. We have rallied on the Statehouse steps for their attention. We have attended hearing after hearing — telling our desperate stories ranging from bankruptcy to death and have endured study after study only to end up with a majority turning a blind eye and a deaf ear and then the excuses, always the excuses.

For years we have watched health care bills hang on the wall or be sent to committees to never be heard of again. In fact, there are two hanging on the wall right now. These are H.156 and its companion bill S.74, an act relating to the incremental implementation of Green Mountain Care. These bills phase in a universal health care system, starting with Universal Primary Care. H.156 has almost 60 sponsors.

State Senators Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, and Becca White, D-Windsor, wrote an opinion piece in a Vermont media outlet that many people can’t afford to be state legislators. They say in their piece that “While over 95 percent of Vermonters have health insurance coverage, some state legislators do not.” It’s meant as a sales pitch, I guess, but it’s a poor one at that because the reality is — health insurance is not necessarily good or helpful to many Vermonters. It’s just expensive. I couldn’t help but wonder if they understand that health insurance is not the same thing as health care.

I have health insurance, health insurance with a deductible of over $14,000. But do I have health care? I would have to say no. I do not use my health insurance. It’s only an expensive safety net if something goes terribly wrong. I don’t go to the doctor unless it is absolutely necessary. I wonder how many potential health problems Vermonters could avoid if they had health care instead of health insurance. Senators Hardy and White forget to mention how many, out of that “over 95 percent,” are underinsured. According to the 2021 Vermont Household Health Insurance Survey — almost 44 percent of privately insured Vermonters under age 65 are underinsured. That means their insurance is not sufficient to cover current medical costs. Not good. Not helpful.

The thing is, I understand legislators are concerned about their health coverage. Who isn’t? What I wish they wanted, instead of health insurance for themselves, is health care for all of us.

The irony is this could have already been achieved. The solution has been right there in front of them, just hanging on the wall, all these years. But instead, as a majority, they have continually rejected the pleas of Vermonters for a healthcare system that is affordable, accessible and covers everyone. The health insurance plan Senators Hardy and White want for legislators is the same as the state employees’ insurance plan.

It’s one of the best insurance plans available and is quite generous with a minimal co-pay and deductible, a plan many Vermonters cannot afford for themselves and their families. Ultimately, they are asking us to pay for their significantly better health insurance plan while at the same time we can barely afford to pay for our own inadequate plans. It just doesn’t square.

S.39, as it stands now, leaves a sour taste in my mouth. The health insurance component feels hypocritical and unprincipled. It feels disrespectful to all those who have put in years of work to improve health care for everyone, not just legislators and especially to all those voices telling all their stories in vain.

If S.39 remains unchanged, becomes law, and the members of the Vermont General Assembly get their raise, their perks and their health insurance benefits — then surely, the first thing on next year’s agenda will be to take H.156 and S.74 off the wall and then — with lightning speed — pass these bills for the benefit of everyone.

It seems to me — it would be only fair that the Vermont General Assembly help all Vermonters as they have helped themselves.

Health care is now, and will always be a necessity for all.

Kelly Cummings writes from Fletcher, Vt. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of Vermont News & Media.