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By Tevye Kelman and Manny Mansbach

Tevye Kelman lives in Washington and Manny Mansbach lives in Athens. Both are members of the Vermont Workers’ Center. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Bennington Banner.

As health care and other living costs spiral ever further out of people’s reach, our legislators and the State’s Green Mountain Care Board have a unique opportunity to protect Vermont residents from rising health care prices once and for all. Vermont’s Act 48, passed in 2011, makes Vermont the only state in the country with a law codifying the human right to health care and charging the Green Mountain Care Board with implementing a publicly financed, universal health care system. But since then, we have seen few legislators uphold our government’s moral responsibility to protect our health care rights by being willing to take on the moneyed interests who have fought against implementation of such a plan.

The Green Mountain Care Board was created by Act 48 and was directed to use its regulatory powers to ensure universal access to high quality care. Over the past decade, however, we have seen the role of the Board devolve into presiding over a cruel annual ritual: approving industry-friendly rate increases that shrink, rather than increase, access to care. Recently, legislators have expressed pride in using one-time federal COVID funds to shore up programs that needed more funding, but our health care system remains dysfunctional and is getting worse, not better.

We cannot tolerate the status quo, and the state’s half-measures are killing people. Instead of spending countless hours and public dollars pretending that minor changes and clever new methods of payment reform represent real solutions for a broken system, what if we simply fulfilled the promise of Act 48? Instead of catering to industry imperatives, and picking winners and losers in health care, what if we made the moral choice that taking care of everyone is the best solution?

During the pandemic the government made testing and vaccination available to everyone. While imperfect, this was necessary, a step in the right direction, and a potential model of how a system that prioritized our right to health care might operate. For years, we’ve heard from policymakers things like “let’s see what we get from Washington,” or “now isn’t the time” to implement universal health care in Vermont. Right now we still have a pandemic, multiple public health crises, and bleak prospects for meaningful health care expansion at the national level. Given these truths, it is even more urgent that we move forward with a truly equitable system that leaves no one out.

According to recent press reports, health insurance costs have risen by an average of 3.4 percent annually over the past decade. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont and MVP Healthcare have raised health care premiums by a cumulative 30 percent and are seeking 15 percent and 24 percent increases this year, respectively. Even for those who are insured, gaps in coverage, difficulties finding providers, and high deductibles and copays often prevent access to care, or force people to defer or forgo care.

The brutality of our health care system contributes to so many other crises that rage around us. The unfathomable death toll of COVID-19 was exacerbated by our country’s refusal to enact a public system of care: according to a recent study, as many as 340,000 COVID-related deaths in the US could have been prevented with universal health care. Our profit-driven health care model has also fueled other social problems such as the opioid epidemic and the national mental health crisis. And with the Supreme Court declaring war on abortion, reproductive freedom and bodily autonomy, we can expect the harm of such decisions to fall disproportionately on those with less access to health care.

It is time for power holders here in Vermont to fund Green Mountain Care as the universal system it was intended to be. It’s time to stop pretending that investing in half-measures and rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic is good health care policy. Tweaking the current system continues to leave out large numbers of people who are uninsured or underinsured, while doing nothing to reign in the power of insurance companies to set exorbitant rates. Instead of rubber-stamping increasingly outrageous rate hikes, the GMCB should work with the Legislature to fulfill the promise of Act 48. Until we have a health care system that includes everyone and puts people’s health over corporate profit, our legislators and our governor continue to perpetuate unnecessary suffering for the people they are elected to serve.