Douglas to present new health plan in January

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(Host) Governor Jim Douglas says he’ll present a new health care reform plan to the Legislature in January that doesn’t include a tax on health care premiums.

Douglas says he hopes to work with lawmakers in the next six months on this issue, but he’s skeptical of a Legislative health care commission that will hold public hearings this summer and fall.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) After identifying health care reform as the most important issue of the year, lawmakers and the governor were unable to break an impasse over how to pay for a program to provide benefits to uninsured Vermonters.

The governor wanted to impose a tax on health care premiums. The Democrats backed a new payroll tax on companies that don’t offer insurance to their employees.

According to a new VPR poll, there’s very little support for the governor’s approach. Two percent of respondents back the premium tax while thirty percent support the payroll tax. The largest group, forty-two percent want to use a broad- based tax like the sales or income tax to finance this program.

(Douglas) “The proposal I offered is the one that I still believe is the best. But I understand that it’s time to look for alternatives, and I will. And before the General Assembly reconvenes you can be sure that I’ll have a proposal for Vermonters to consider.”

(Kinzel) A special legislative commission will hold public hearings in the next six months to gauge public support for changes to the state’s health care system.

Douglas thinks the commission begins its work with a predetermined outcome:

(Douglas)”A commission with eight legislators and two non-voting administration representatives is not a very serious overture toward cooperative bipartisan efforts to find a way to address this challenge. I think that says something about the extent to which they’re reaching out.”

(Kinzel) Senate Health and Welfare chairman Jim Leddy is disappointed by the governor’s attitude:

(Leddy)”It does have a predetermined outcome and quite simply it is that we have a crisis and we’re going to respond to it. And the outcome that we’re looking for is to provide health insurance to every Vermonter that is comprehensive, that we believe will take time to implement, that builds in safeguards around its financing and the sustainability of the financing and that really deals with issues of quality and cost control as well as access.”

(Kinzel) The VPR poll also found that Vermonters are equally divided between the implementation of a publicly financed state system and a continuation of the current employer based system.

Leddy thinks the strong support for the alternative to the current system sends an important message:

(Leddy) “It’s a recognition of the fear and concerns people have, also a recognition that what we have now as system – both its delivery and its financing – isn’t working for a lot of people. And people in that circumstance are open to looking at change, looking at doing things differently.”

(Kinzel) Leddy says he’s disappointed that the governor didn’t work more closely with Legislative leaders in the final weeks of the session to find a compromise health care reform solution. He says he hopes that changes in the coming months.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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