On December 17, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin made an announcement that stunned many supporters of single payer health care. In a letter to the editor published the next day by the Burlington Free Press, Shumlin wrote:
“Earlier this week, I made one of the most difficult decisions of my public life when I announced that I cannot support a move to a publicly-financed health care system in Vermont at this time. I have advocated for such a system for much of my public life, but over the past two weeks it has become clear to me that the risks and economic shocks of moving forward at this time are too great.”
Note he used “at this time” twice in his opening paragraph. This emphasis on timing was echoed in the headline Vermont Public Radio used to introduce their story: Shumlin: It’s ‘Not The Right Time’ For Single Payer
Other headlines were not so kind.
Politico: Vermont Bails on Single Payer
Associated Press: Governor Abandons Single-Payer Health Care Plan
Burlington Free Press: Single-Payer Dies in Shumlin’s Biggest Disappointment
So is single payer dead or just postponed? Well, it all depends on who you are and what your existing views are on the issue.
Ideological opponents of single payer gleefully point to the setback in Vermont and are happy to declare single payer dead and buried. Here’s a spokesman for the National Federation of Independent Business, quoted in a Politico article, Why Single Payer Died in Vermont: “If cobalt blue Vermont couldn’t find a way to make single-payer happen, then it’s very unlikely that any other state will.”
A more measured statement was issued by the Vermont Associations of Hospitals and Health Systems, “praised” the Governor’s decision to “set aside” the single payer proposal to avoid the “potential harm to Vermont’s fragile economy,” and looked forward to continuing to work on health reforms that, “provide coverage for all Vermonters and make health insurance more affordable without damaging Vermont’s economy.” The Hospital Association is a member of a grass tops coalition of payers and providers and businesses, Vermont Partners for Health Care Reform. Last year the group commissioned an “independent” report critical of the financing assumptions.
The reactions of proponents of single payer can also be broken down into two major camps — the really angry and the resigned to keep trying. The day after Shumlin’s announcement, protesters were at the state capital, burning health care bills and delivering toast to the governor, declaring his career “is toast.” One strong supporter of single payer, the Vermont Workers’ Center, characterized the Governor’s decision as a “slap in the face.”
At this same protest, however, another advocate for single payer, Dr. Deb Richter, defended the Governor and urged patience, saying “she is still optimistic Vermont will be the first state to have public universal health care, but that goal may need to be achieved incrementally… This is like turning the Titanic,” she said.
So IS single payer at the state level dead or is it possible with a longer time horizon?
Our next blog will address that question by highlighting some of the key takeaways from Vermont’s effort.