Health care reform bill clears Senate

MIDDLEBURY — Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Weybridge, received a lot of feedback on Tuesday in wake of the Senate’s passage, by a 21-9 vote, of a bill that lays the foundation for a single-payer health care system in Vermont.

But perhaps none of the feedback touched her as much as a message she got from the parents of her new grandchild, who turned two years old this week.

“It said, ‘What a wonderful birthday present for your grandson,’” Ayer said of the message during a telephone interview 30 minutes after the state’s highest chamber had approved H.202, a bill that has already won House approval.

The legislation, which Ayer helped shepherd through the Senate Health and Welfare Committee (which she chairs), now goes to conference committee, where House and Senate negotiators are expected to easily reconcile differences. The document will then hit Gov. Peter Shumlin’s desk.

The governor, during a phone interview on Wednesday, confirmed he will sign it.

“This is a historic beginning for Vermont,” Shumlin said. “I think this could be a huge economic opportunity for Vermont and will make this state a place where health care is a right and not a privilege. How can you get better than that?”

The health care reform legislation establishes a Green Mountain Care Board that, as of July 2011, will be charged with planning for a single-payer system, including the benefit package, payment methodology and budget.

Ayer said board nominations for the new board would be considered as soon as the bill is signed into law. The board will also help create a Vermont Health Benefit Exchange, as mandated by federal law. The exchange is charged with, among other things, consolidating and simplifying the purchase of health insurance.

Ayer said the Health Benefit Exchange will serve as a transition, or pivot, to get to a single-payer health care plan. She cautioned that such a transition will require some federal waivers. And the Legislature could choose to change course in the years ahead. But barring any substantial deviation, Ayer said Vermonters could see a single-payer plan offered as soon as 2015 or as late as 2017.

Sen. Harold Giard, D-Bridport, was among the Senate majority voting for the bill.

“It certainly is historic, and a huge step,” Giard said. “Since I have been in the Senate these past seven years, this is all we have talked about — health care, and how to get a handle on it. What this is, is a framework; a beginning.”

Giard acknowledged the new law will bring some substantial change to the state’s health care system. But Giard believes it will be positive change, in terms of saving health care dollars and cutting down on administrative bureaucracy.

“I don’t think that doctors will bolt or hospitals will close,” Giard said.

Rep. Mike Fisher, D-Lincoln, is vice chairman of the House Health Care Committee that spearheaded H.202 through the House process.

“I feel very positive about the action the Senate took today,” Fisher said on Tuesday. “This was one of the many steps we have to take to reform our health care system.”

Fisher added he is optimistic House and Senate conferees will be able to agree on a final document for Shumlin’s signature.

Proponents of H.202 advanced a single-payer health care system as a way to curb rampant annual increases in health insurance premiums. They also advanced single-payer as a system that would boost business growth in Vermont by taking the responsibility of health care off employers and placing it with individuals in a benefit that would follow them from job to job.

Opponents have countered that state government is ill-equipped to take over operation of as vital a service as health care.

But at least for now, it appears as though state government will get its chance to fix a system that most lawmakers concede is financially broken.

“Vermont has a lot to be proud of,” Shumlin said.

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.


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