Gov. Shumlin signs health care reform bill

May 27, 2011

Burlington Free Press

MONTPELIER — Three second-year medical students wearing white jackets stood on the edge of a crowd of more than 200 people who had come to watch Gov. Peter Shumlin sign a law that puts Vermont on the road toward a consolidated health care system, publicly financed and covering all Vermont residents.

“We were really involved in trying to pass this bill,” Therese Ray said. “There is a lot of support among medical students across the country.” Ray said she hoped that by the time she was ready to practice medicine, Vermont’s transformed health care system would be up and running.

As the sun broke through the threatening gray clouds, the governor looked around at his audience — the three medical students, lawmakers, lobbyists and red-shirted members of the Health Care is a Human Right campaign – and expressed “thanks from the bottom of my heart” for the work that led to enactment of a law he said would make history. Passage of the legislation also fulfilled one of his campaign promises.

“We gather here today to sign into the law the first single-payer health care system in America,” Shumlin said. He acknowledged the work that remains to turn the intention set out in the bill into reality.

“We have a few challenges, but I believe getting tough things done is going to lead to a bright future,” Shumlin said.

Under the new law, the state won’t jump to a government-financed system soon. It’s likely to be five years before such a change could take place.

Instead, the law sets in motion dozens of studies intended to inform decision-makers that include the Legislature and a new regulatory board to be formed later this year.

It’s all the yet-to-be answered questions and the powerful board the law establishes that worry Patricia McDonald, chairwoman of the Vermont Republican Party. She stood near the medical students, but without their enthusiasm for the occasion.

“I haven’t heard anything that would change my mind,” McDonald said following the 50 minutes of speeches that preceded the signing of the bill. “If anything, we are just as strong in our concern about the details.”

McDonald complained about the law’s focus on moving the state to a single-payer system, one that would eventually all but eliminate private health insurance. “I don’t know why this is the only answer. I don’t think it is.”

“I’m going to work to try to find alternatives, to bring other options forward,” McDonald said. “We don’t want to just say ‘no.’”

Supporters of the new law reminded each other that winning passage wasn’t enough.

“There are definitely people who want to see this fail,” House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown, warned. “We can’t let that happen.”

“We will have to be ready to fight the fight that will come,” Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell, D-Windsor, said. “We will win.”

The celebration drew past fighters for health reform as well as the recent warriors. Con Hogan, former secretary of human services and co-author of a book in 2005 that advocated a single-payer system for Vermont, sat on a granite ledge outside the ring around Shumlin.

He applauded the law saying, “We at least have a path to test some important things.” The finances are critical, he said. “If they work, there will be broad support. If they don’t, it will fall apart. I think they can work.”

Jim Leddy, veteran of the health reform battle five years ago when he was chairman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, also came to cheer the progress that the new law represented.

“It has been a long time coming, but I am more than encouraged about where we are,” he said. Still, he noted what he considers to be the biggest threat to the success of the state’s plan — the challenges to federal health care reform.

“We can’t succeed if that falls apart,” Leddy said.

While Shumlin had noted there were so many people to thank for making the law happen, Leddy said Shumlin deserves much of the credit. “He ran on this issue. That was key.”

Supporters and opponents are gearing up for the next round — which is to secure broad public support for their perspectives.

Darcie Johnston, executive director of the newly formed Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, called the bill-signing party a wake-up call.

“Today, the Vermont Legislature turned the reins to our state’s entire health care system over to the Shumlin administration and the Green Mountain Care Board, a group of five unelected, unaccountable ‘experts’ appointed by the governor,” she said.

Johnston pledged to continue conducting an aggressive public relations and fundraising campaign to build a case against the push for a single-payer system.

On the other side, several organizations — Vermont Public Interest Research Group, Vermont Health Care for All and Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility — plan to sponsor town hall discussions to “demystify Vermont’s reform plans and gather the feedback necessary to ensure the overhaul’s success.”

“Vermonters understand the failures of our current health care system all too well, and the vast majority support the governor’s vision for a universal, publicly financed health care system,” said Cassandra Gekas, a health care advocate at VPIRG. “But the complexity of the task at hand and opponents’ strategy of using fear and misinformation to stall progress, has only served to muddy the waters.”

“We are preparing for all the advertising and misinformation that is going to come,” said James Haslam, executive director of the Vermont Workers Center, which ran the Health Care is a Human Right Campaign. He was optimistic based on the grass-roots support that helped build momentum for the law.

“We really do see it as a triumph of ordinary people coming together to change what is politically possible.”

Contact Nancy Remsen at 578-5685 or