Health Care is Front and Center for Democrats

December 15, 2013

Times Argus

MONTPELIER — As Democratic lawmakers struggle to help constituents navigate the troubled waters of the new insurance exchange, Gov. Peter Shumlin said Saturday their difficulties are all the more reason for legislators to keep their eyes on the single-payer prize.

“If ever there is an example in this nation … for why we need to take the Affordable Care Act and make it even better,” Shumlin said, “it is evidenced across this country by the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act.”

Shumlin’s comments came during a House Democratic Caucus in which members of the chamber’s near super-majority gathered in the State House on Saturday to discuss the issues on tap for the legislative session set to convene in less than a month.

From property tax reform and renewable energy to education and prescription drug abuse, Shumlin and House Speaker Shap Smith ticked off the list of key issues lawmakers will take up in the second half of the two-year biennium.

But it was health care that was on the minds of legislators, many of whom have spent the last few months trying to help residents in their districts make sense of a new online health insurance exchange that has, by and large, fallen short of consumer expectations.

Rep. Mike Fisher, the Democratic chairman of the House Committee on Health Care, fielded a barrage of questions from legislative colleagues looking to solve the dilemmas of specific constituents. Fisher said the situation on Vermont Health Connect has improved since its Oct. 1 launch.

“But it is clear that Vermont Health Connect is not functioning well enough at this time to manage the business community,” Fisher said.

Fisher said health care is a difficult enough subject in normal years. Adding technical glitches on the exchange to the mix, he said, “is just a confluence that I don’t have to tell you has been just tremendously frustrating and confusing for many Vermonters.”

Democratic legislators expressed concern Saturday that the government’s handling of the exchange will cost them the credibility they’ll need to sell voters on single-payer health care.

Lawmakers spent the lunch hour talking in small groups about goals for the year ahead. Summing up some of the thoughts expressed by his colleagues, Rep. Tristan Toleno, a freshman representative from Brattleboro, said there’s “fear in having been perceived as not having been competent on health care,” and the impact on legislators’ “ability to sell and fix something that in its first iteration may not have been what we hoped for.”

Shumlin said he doesn’t doubt the heft of the political lift ahead.

“This will be the hardest lift in legislative history in the state of Vermont. I promise, it really will,” Shumlin said. “It will make civil unions, marriage equality, Act 60 … it will probably make them look relatively easy.”

But he said single-payer health care is his gubernatorial imperative, and that lawmakers must begin “plowing the ground” in 2014 for a publicly financed system he says will be online by 2017.

“I’m going to ask you in joining me this session in looking very carefully at who’s paying what now … and how progressive or regressive is the way we pay for health care?” Shumlin said. “And then we’re going to ask you to look at other alternatives to paying for health care where everybody pays based on their ability to pay.”

Health care won’t be the only arena in which the revenue debate will unfold next year.

The rapid increase in statewide property tax rates will prompt heightened scrutiny of the state’s education funding system. It will put Democrats in a difficult debate about whether middle- and lower-income Vermonters should be asked to pay a higher percentage of their income for public schools.

A $70 million shortfall in the fiscal year 2015 general fund, meanwhile, will resurrect the long-standing debate within the party about the merits of raising taxes, broad-based or otherwise.

Sentiments expressed by lawmakers in their workgroups Saturday spotlighted the divide, with some saying “we don’t see how revenues can be off the table,” and others insisting on “keeping taxes down.”

Smith last month said he’ll push for a fiscal year 2015 spending package that raises no new revenues whatsoever. In a speech to his caucus at the end of the day Saturday, he asked Democrats to resist the pull of raising taxes to fill budget holes.

“We’re going to be in a place this year where people say over and over and over to us, ‘If we just put more money into it, it will get better,’” Smith said.

“And you know what? Putting more money into things sometimes is the answer,” he said. “But it isn’t always the answer. And it shouldn’t be the first answer that we always have at the tip of our tongue.”