Health care reform tops the list for lawmakers

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(John Dillon) First on the list for the new Democratic majority is comprehensive health care reform. Burlington Democrat John Tracy will chair a special committee that plans to hold hearings around the state. Tracy says the goal is to find ways to extend health insurance to the 63,000 Vermonters now without coverage. But he says the plan has to be both affordable and financially sustainable for the long-term.

(Tracy) “If we come out with a proposal that will not stand on its own financial feet three or four years from now, then we’re not doing a service for anybody. And I’m not going to do that. I think it’s a moral obligation for us to find a way to make sure that all Vermonters have health care. That is our goal. Now how we achieve that is going to be determined over the next two years.”

(Dillon) Tracy says Democrats first want to pass a bill to allow Vermonters to buy lower-priced prescription drugs from other countries, including Canada.

(Tracy) “It’s a short term fix. It’s by no means a long-term fix. But it’s something that we can do immediately, and I think Vermonters are behind that. I mean it’s crazy that we’re paying more for drugs than any other place in the world.”

(Dillon) Governor Jim Douglas endorses the concept of re-importation, but won’t support it because the federal government says it’s illegal.

Douglas has also warned about the financial realities facing lawmakers as they attempt to overhaul health care. The state’s Medicaid budget faces a $60 to $70 million deficit next year. The situation is likely to get worse as the federal government plans to cut its portion of Medicaid spending.

Democrats say they won’t rule out raising taxes as an option to pay for universal coverage or to address the Medicaid deficit. Senator Jim Leddy is a Burlington Democrat who chairs the Senate Health and Welfare Committee. He says the first priority is to make sure people aren’t cut from the Medicaid rolls.

(Leddy) “Do we need new revenues? My guess is we do. I don’t think that’s where you start with looking first. I think when all is said and done I’ be very surprised that we can sustain our current levels of benefits and services and find either new revenues that don’t raise taxes or find ways to cut that much money out of the budget. I think that’s going to be very, very challenging.”

(Dillon) Leddy says he’d consider additional taxes on alcohol, for example, to pay some health care costs. Republicans, however, are leery of new taxes. Minority Leader Rick Hube says lawmakers should look at how much the state spends on health care before it raises additional revenue.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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