Much Ado About MVP and Single Payer Health Care Reform

July 31, 2011


A nasty tit-for-tat ensued last week between a GOP operative and the Vermont Democratic Party over Gov. Peter Shumlin’s single-payer health care plan, and the Dems, who aggressively counter-attacked, won the dogfight.

Darcie Johnston, a Republican politico and head of Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, an anti-single payer group, issued the first salvo on Wednesday and penetrated the Vermont Dems’ no-fly-zone in cyberspace.

Johnston declared in an email blast that MVP Health Care, one of the state’s three major health insurance carriers, was encouraging large, self-insured employers, such as IBM, Walmart and Home Depot, to leave the state — should Shumlin’s single-payer plan become a reality.

As proof, Johnston cited a reference on MVP’s website to a possible payroll tax on businesses and employees. A section of the site states, “to avoid double-paying, employers may consider getting rid of their self-funded plan or leave the jurisdiction of Vermont.”

MVP’s website also refers to the Hsiao report’s recommendation of a 9.4 percent payroll tax on businesses and 3.1 percent payroll tax on employees. If such a tax were instituted, MVP asserted, companies would have to pay insurance premiums and a payroll tax. The website states: “In this situation, employers would be subject to the likely payroll tax – meaning employers would finance the single payer plan and cover their own employees under their existing plan, essentially becoming a double-payer, unless they choose not to continue with their current plan.”

Johnston interpreted this information as an endorsement of her own view, and then put a partisan twist on it. As she put it: “Governor Shumlin’s reckless push towards a single payer system could very well be the biggest job-killer in Vermont’s history.”

The Vermont Democratic Party pounced on Johnston’s email the next day, accusing her of spreading “misinformation” about the single-payer bill.

Jesse Bragg, executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party, said Johnston’s claim was misleading because the state hasn’t figured out what the financing mechanism for single-payer will be. The Shumlin administration has made cost containment the Holy Grail of his ambitious plan, and the governor has repeatedly said single-payer can’t go forward without bending the cost curve. The financing system would be determined in 2013.

“The legislation authorized the pathway to single-payer, but the specific financing plan has not yet been designed,” Bragg said. “Therefore, claims about the impacts of single-payer financing on individuals or groups are nothing more than fearmongering.”

Bragg said that “far-right groups” like Vermonters for Health Care Freedom are conspiring with special interests (i.e. MVP), and, together, they “are putting corporate profits and the far-right agenda before the needs of working Vermonters.”

On Friday, MVP Health Care weighed in – against Vermonters for Health Care Freedom. Gary Hughes, director of internal communication, issued a statement objecting to the “irresponsible statements” made by the 501c4 group, based in Montpelier. Johnston’s press release was not authorized by MVP, and Hughes said it took one comment on the company’s Web site out of context.

“To state that MVP has advised Vermont employers to leave the state is inaccurate,” Hughes wrote.

In an interview, Hughes said the company continues to participate in the single-payer discussion, and, he emphasized: “We aren’t advising any of our employers to move.” MVP’s website statements, which appear to support Johnston’s contention, have not been removed.

A triumphant riposte was issued by the Vermont Democratic Party not long after the MVP excoriation of Johnston was made public.

“In its short existence, Vermonters for Health Care Freedom has repeatedly distorted the facts, taken quotes out of context, and misled Vermonters in a transparent attempt to derail meaningful, necessary health reform,” Bragg wrote. “We join MVP in demanding that Vermonters for Health Care Freedom stop distorting the truth. If Darcie Johnston cannot stick to the facts, she should stay out of the debate.”

Johnston sent a public apology to MVP, explaining that she misread the aforementioned double-pay/don’t-stay statement on the insurer’s website. Her initial contriteness, however, gave way to a restatement of the gist of her original partisan pitch: Single-payer will hurt big business.

“The single-payer bill has created an enormous amount of uncertainty and confusion for Vermont’s employers, and we regret if we added to that confusion,” Johnston wrote.

Dan Barlow, who handles government affairs for Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, also waded into the fray. Barlow said the tactics used by Vermonters for Health Care Freedom are similar to those used in the federal debate over health care reform efforts in 2010.

Because the group is a 501c4 and isn’t under federal law required to reveal its sources of income, Barlow said, “We don’t know who they represent.”

Uncertainties abound, with this exception: The inevitability of more polemical battles over single-payer health care.