Health care reform leaders hope Vermont will get help from Obama

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(Host) Leaders of Montpelier’s health care reform efforts hope Vermont will get special help from the next Congress and the Obama Administration.

They say that Vermont could become a laboratory for the federal government as it tries to expand insurance coverage.

But others question if Vermont’s experience provides a relevant model for the rest of the country.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Senate President Peter Shumlin found a silver lining this week in the fiscal crisis facing both Washington and Montpelier.

Shumlin said that since the feds are spending billions bailing out banks and the auto industry, President-elect Barrack Obama may not be able to deliver on his campaign promise of providing universal health coverage.

But that’s not all bad news, according to Shumlin, because Vermont could then offer a pilot health reform plan for Washington.

(Shumlin) "I think we should make it Vermont‘s priority, as a policy of the state, to be one of those pilot states. And I think because of the work we’ve done with Catamount, we are uniquely positioned."

(Dillon) The state-subsidized Catamount health plan provides coverage for uninsured Vermonters.

Shumlin said Washington could help by providing more Medicaid money to pay for people at higher income levels. He also hopes Congress will change a federal law that now limits state control over the self-insurance plans used by many of Vermont’s largest companies.

Congressman Peter Welch has sponsored legislation to make Vermont a model.

(Welch) "There’s two questions. First, how is the Obama Administration going to approach health care? And I suspect they are going to want to do it on a comprehensive basis, not on a state by state approach. But the second question, Vermont actually has a political track record of making progress on health care. You’ve got some experience that’s very valuable. Maybe the Obama Administration will want to look at us. Whether they will or not, nobody knows yet."

(Dillon) Douglas Administration officials and Democratic legislative leaders on health care have already traveled to Washington to ask for federal help. They’ve tried to make the case – with a bi-partisan pitch — that Vermont is a national leader on expanding coverage.

But Jeanne Keller, a health policy analyst in Burlington, questions if the state makes a good model.

(Keller) "It’s very odd to consider that the whitest state in the union, with the highest number of people already insured, that is one of the most rural, could be a laboratory for anything meaningful for the rest of the United States."

(Dillon) And Keller says the health plan advocated by candidate Obama is different from what Vermont has developed.

(Keller) "I also don’t see Catamount Health being a federal solution given that virtually every proposal that Obama, Clinton and the other Democratic frontrunners and that the Democrats in Congress are considering now – they’re all about allowing people to buy into the existing federal employee health plan as the kind of core product. They’re not talking about creating a whole new plan."

(Dillon) Keller says Vermont makes a poor model in yet another way: She says it has one of the lowest Medicaid payment rates in the country. Those low rates, she says, force costs to be shifted on to employers and others who pay health insurance.

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

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