Activists Want Farm Workers Covered In Health Care System

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(Host) In the debate over Vermont’s universal health care legislation, activists say they want to make sure that undocumented workers on the state’s dairy farms are covered.

VPR’s John Dillon has this report on the last-minute wrangling over the health-care bill.

(Dillon) Over the weekend, a Mexican farmworker named Javier traveled to Montpelier to speak at a rally for universal coverage.

Javier is 47 and he’s been in this country for four years. In his time milking cows on Vermont farms, he developed farmers’ lung, a condition caused by chronic exposure to hay dust. He says he can’t afford the tests to find out if his condition has gotten worse.

(Javier, through interpreter) "Sometimes we have to send for medicine in Mexico and have it sent here, because it’s expensive." 

(Dillon) As Brendan O’Neill from the Vermont Migrant Workers Solidarity Project translated, Javier explained his opposition to a provision that would exclude him and 1,500 other undocumented workers from Vermont’s new health coverage plan.

(Javier, through interpreter) "I see it as a discriminatory act against us."

(Dillon) People who support the exclusion say it simply reinforces language that’s already in the House bill. They say the federal government won’t allow undocumented workers to be included. And they say if Vermont extends coverage to people who are in this country illegally it could hurt the state’s efforts to get federal waivers for a single payer health system. Peter Galbraith is a Windham Democrat who voted for the Senate amendment.

(Galbraith) "It should not make any difference in terms of the policy of the state of Vermont whether we go with the House version or the Senate version. In either case, illegal aliens will not be allowed to go into Green Mountain Care. It might be a political mistake in terms of getting the waivers to take the Senate provision, but that’s a separate judgment."

(Dillon) But a number of farmworker advocates descended on the Statehouse to make the case that that the Vermont plan should cover everyone – including workers who are part of the state’s iconic agriculture industry.

James Haslam is with the Vermont Workers Center and an organizer with the Health Care is a Human Right campaign.

He says Vermont should chart a separate course in its health care bill.

(Haslam) "We understand that  there are some requirements that the federal government has put on Vermont and every state around that. But when we get to a universal system, we want it to mean really to universal. Universal means everyone. And that’s what this is about, and that’s where Vermont‘s values are."

(Dillon) The final version of the health care bill is scheduled to be voted on later this week.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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