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Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, still hasn’t even officially won his own reelection bid: The Legislature will settle the outcome of the November race in January because Shumlin failed to win more than 50 percent of the vote. (Photo: Community College of Vermont/flickr/cc)

'A Slap in the Face': Vermont Gov. Jumps Ship on Single-Payer Healthcare

Proponents of state's trailblazing effort to build universal healthcare system slam governor for abandoning plan he once championed

Deirdre Fulton

Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin on Wednesday abandoned his plan to create a single-payer healthcare system in his state, saying moving forward at this time would be too costly—a claim critics denounced as "a slap in the face" to Vermonters.

The proposal to create a universal, publicly financed healthcare system in Vermont was a centerpiece of the Democratic governor's agenda. Legislation Shumlin signed in 2011 put the state on a path to move beyond the federal Affordable Care Act by 2017 to a healthcare system more similar to that in neighboring Canada. He maintained that access to healthcare should be "a right and not a privilege."

But on Wednesday, Shumlin said that, despite his "steadfast support" for publicly-financed healthcare, he "reluctantly" could no longer press forward with the idea in Vermont. He made his decision after hearing from healthcare financing experts who said enacting the proposal would require a double-digit payroll tax on all Vermont businesses and a sliding scale for individuals of up to 9.5 percent. 

"These are simply not tax rates that I can responsibly support or urge the Legislature to pass," Shumlin said. "In my judgment, the potential economic disruption and risks would be too great to small businesses, working families and the state’s economy."

He framed the announcement—a major setback for single-payer advocates nationwide—as unpleasant but necessary:

Pushing for single payer health care when the time isn’t right and it might hurt our economy would not be good for Vermont and it would not be good for true health care reform. It could set back for years all of our hard work toward the important goal of universal, publicly-financed health care for all. I am not going [to] undermine the hope of achieving critically important health care reforms for this state by pushing prematurely for single payer when it is not the right time for Vermont. In my judgment, now is not the right time to ask our legislature to take the step of passing a financing plan for Green Mountain Care.

But activists who have spent years organizing around access to healthcare were outraged by Shumlin's decision, which they described as misguided and misinformed.

"This inaction is a slap in the face of many thousands of Vermont residents who suffer from poor health and financial hardship in the private insurance market that sells healthcare as a commodity to those who can afford it," read a statement from the Vermont Workers' Center's Healthcare is a Human Right Campaign.

"The Governor’s misguided decision was a completely unnecessary result of a failed policy calculation that he pursued without democratic input," the statement continued. "Without formally repealing Act 48 and without a democratic process of deliberation, the Governor’s unilateral decision is completely inexcusable and unacceptable. A decision of this magnitude requires the voices of the people of Vermont to be heard. The many thousands of people that are active in the HCHR Campaign will not acquiesce to this undemocratic decision."

And Dr. Andrew D. Coates, president of the Chicago-based Physicians for a National Health Program, took issue with Shumlin's rationale and called on the governor "to rededicate himself to the cause of a public national health program."

"Governor Peter Shumlin, in his press conference, stated that 'now is not the right time' for single payer," Coates said. "I disagree. The time for a single-payer system is now. Our patients in every state urgently need it."

Coates continued:

Gov. Shumlin today stated that the costs of his proposed reform would be too great, saying, "The taxes required to replace health care premiums with a publicly financed plan that would best serve Vermont are, in a word, enormous." (The governor’s finance proposal would have instituted an 11.5 payroll tax on employers and a progressive income tax of zero to 9.5 percent, depending on income.) The governor did not dwell upon the fact that the taxes he cited would be less, on average, than the exorbitant and burdensome premiums and out-of-pocket costs that presently weigh heavily upon households as well as employers.

Gov. Shumlin also invoked "risk of economic shock" as a reason to turn away from single payer — the idea that the transition to a Vermont without private health insurance, a Vermont without profiteers lining up to make a buck off the suffering of the sick, would prove too threatening to the social order.

The Vermont Workers Center organized a noon rally outside the statehouse to protest the governor's "failure to lead on healthcare."

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