Health Care Legislation Sparks Debate

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(Host intro) This week, the Vermont House will debate legislation that makes significant changes in the way that most Vermonters receive and pay for health care.

As part of our “Hands on Health Care,” coverage this week, VPR’s Bob Kinzel spoke with five freshmen lawmakers about how they’re viewing one of the most important votes of their first year.

(Kinzel) The plan establishes the framework for a new health care system, and backers fully acknowledge that it postpones some key decisions until next year. They argue it’s needed to provide access to the estimated sixty-two-thousand Vermonters who don’t have health coverage. And they say the proposal will help control overall health care costs in the future. While the bill calls for universal access, it doesn’t include a specific funding source. But it’s likely that a new payroll tax will be used.

A new state administrative agency for health care would be created by consolidating several existing departments. The legislation also calls for primary and preventative care to be available by July of 2007, and hospital care several months later.

The Health Care committee plans to take public testimony throughout the summer and fall to determine the best way to finance the plan and to study its overall economic impact. Many freshmen Democrats say they’re supporting the bill because they view it as a first step in a longer process.

Woodstock Representative, Alison Clarkson, is a law professor at Vermont Law School.

(Clarkson) “I think it was a mandate that we were all sent here with to try and fix this huge problem in health care and I think they’ve given us a roadmap that we can all embrace. It opens up the conversation for the summer and the fall to engage Vermonters in articulating their concerns both with the plan as it stands now and their concerns with the system as a whole.”

(Kinzel) Jim Condon is a former radio newsperson who now operates a deli in Burlington. He supports the bill and looks forward to next year’s debate over the specific financing of the plan.

(Condon) “If we’re not happy with whatever they come up with for a financing mechanism, if we don’t think it’s in the best interests of Vermont, then we’re not going to do it. But again, we have to do something. We’ve got more than sixty-thousand Vermonters who don’t have any insurance. I was one of them for ten years. I know what it’s like to live without health insurance. You’ve got to be careful, every step you take.”

(Kinzel) Michelle Kupersmith is an attorney from South Burlington. She supports the bill because she believes it will spark a comprehensive debate about virtually all aspects of Vermont’s health care system.

(Kupersmith) “Everything gets on the table – all of the issues about who’s paying now. What are they paying? What are they paying for? What are people receiving as benefits? They will all be addressed in this process. Whereas, when you look to tweak a process, you don’t necessarily get everything on the table.”

(Kinzel) A number of Republican first-term members view the bill very differently. They see it as the beginning of a state-run system that will be supported by the imposition of much higher tax rates.

Barton Representative, John Morley, has some strong concerns about the bill

(Morley) “If we’re going to control the costs and the benefits paid to doctors and nurses and so on and so forth, what signal’s that sending to those professionals in the industry? Are they going to stay here, take less of a cut? Or are they, potentially what scares me, are they going to leave the state of Vermont? And I have real real issues about that.”

(Kinzel) Patti Komline is a new member from Dorset. She’s disappointed that the Health Care committee left so many key questions unanswered

(Komline) “I think it’s a little premature. And I think they might have felt pressure to get something out. But I’m not comfortable at all voting on something that has no money, and no levels of coverage on there. It’s kind of a scary thing, especially when people are realizing that they’re going to have to give up their insurance.”

(Kinzel) The special committee on Health Care will present its proposal on Wednesday morning. And it’s expected that debate over the bill will take at least two full days. While the final vote is expected to fall largely along party lines, it’s likely that several Republicans will vote for the bill and some Democrats will oppose it.

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

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