By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau – Published: March 14, 2011
MONTPELIER — A public hearing tonight on the single-payer proposal now under consideration in Montpelier will kick off what promises to be an eventful week on the health-care front.

Postponed by snow last Monday, the first public hearing on Gov. Peter Shumlin’s ambitious plan to deliver universal health-care coverage through a single-payer system will be conducted on Vermont Interactive Television from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

It won’t be the only time this week lawmakers hear from the public. As the bill inches closer to a critical committee vote later in the week, skeptics of Shumlin’s plan will look to rally opposition against the controversial legislation.

“We’re talking about a $5 billion system. That’s just way too big for us in Vermont to even dream of taking on by ourselves,” says Roland Belavance, owner of Belavance Trucking in Barre. “They want to do everything over from scratch. But they have no way of funding this whole thing. There are so many unanswered questions, but they say, ‘Don’t worry about it, we’ll take care of that down the road.’ It makes no sense to me.”

Relevance will join fellow businessmen Tuesday in the Statehouse, where they plan to get face-time with lawmakers on the House and Senate health-care committees to express their concerns.

The health-care legislation, also known as H.202, lays the foundation for a single-payer system sometime after 2014. Though the legislation in and of itself won’t overhaul Vermont’s $5 billion health-care industry, it establishes the framework through which a single-payer system would one day be run. It also creates a so-called “Vermont Health Reform Board,” an independent panel that would one day have authority over most aspects of the health-care system.

Though Shumlin and lawmakers say they envision a publicly financed health-care system in the future, they have yet to specify precisely how they’d collect the revenues needed to pay for it. And that vagueness has Belavance, who employs more than 150 workers, worried about what the proposal could mean for his business. In a February report referred to by legislators as a “road map” for single-payer health-care, Harvard economist William Ciao recommends an approximately 11 percent payroll tax on employers to finance the system.

“What bothers me on the business side is people want less expensive health care but they want someone else to pay for it,” Belavance says. “Well who is that someone else going to be?”

Lawmakers will hear more concerns over single-payer on Wednesday, when the newly formed “Vermonters for Health Care Freedom” stages a rally at 6 p.m. on the first floor of the Statehouse.

Founded by veteran political consultant Darcie Johnston, whose clients have included James Douglas and Jim Jeffords, the group of “between 75 and 100” people will advocate for a “free-market approach” to health-care reform, Johnston says.

“We have a very good health-care system in Vermont, with more than 92 percent of people insured. So why are we turning this upside down when we don’t know what we’re turning it upside down for?” Johnston says. “I think we’ll bring the voice of people throughout Vermont who are asking the questions that need to be asked, and that no one in Montpelier seems to be willing to ask.”

Johnston’s 6 p.m. rally will feature three speakers: University of Vermont economist Art Woolf, Republican Sen. Randy Brock and Rep. George Till, a Jericho Democrat and practicing obstetrician who also sits on the House Committee on Health Care.

The single-payer proposal has plenty of supporters as well, and proponents of the legislation will urge lawmakers to move ahead with the bill. Officials with Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility say the proposal will spur economic development by relieving employers from the burden of covering health benefits for employees. Under a public-financing system, according to the organization, Vermont businesses on the whole will pay less than they do in the private insurance market.

The Health Care is a Human Right Campaign and Vermont Health Care for All will continue to rally their members to support the bill. And the Vermont Public Interest Research Group has encouraged its members to speak out in favor of the proposal at the hearing tonight.

Residents can participate in the hearing by going to one of the 15 Vermont Interactive Television sites statewide. For a list of locations, visit