Health care subject of sharp political divisions

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(Host) At the beginning of the Legislative session, Republican and Democratic leaders pledged to work cooperatively on key health care issues. But last week, sharp political divisions emerged over a drug re-importation bill. A big Medicaid deficit and an overall health care reform initiative also could set off fierce political battles at the Statehouse.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) After the drug re-importation bill passed the House by a 135 to 5 vote, Republican leader Peg Flory complained that the bill was a waste of time because it probably won’t affect very many people, she estimated around 100, and she criticized the Democrats for spending so much time on this legislation:

(Flory) “It’s unfortunate that the first six weeks of the session was spent on this issue to the detriment of many other pressing issues. It’s time we took some significant steps to make healthcare affordable for all Vermonters and this requires that we inject some truth into the debate.”

(Kinzel) Democrats were furious. They noted that 100,000 Vermonters don’t have prescription drug coverage as part of their health insurance plan. House Health Care Chairman John Tracy also pointed out that Governor Jim Douglas could have implemented the re-importation plan by signing an executive order. But Tracy says Douglas refused to do this, forcing the Legislature to work on the bill:

(Tracy) “He would not put the ball into play. We did, we did. We took the steps necessary to get this thing done and help Vermonters now. But it’s like a guy who’s trying to play tennis – he’s holding the ball and telling you to serve. He could have done it before we were even in session. It doesn’t pass the straight face test.”

(Kinzel) Douglas says he didn’t sign that order because he thinks the plan will affect very few Vermonters.

Douglas is also turning up the heat on the Democrats by insisting that lawmakers pass a meaningful health care reform package this year:

(Douglas) “There’s no reason why Vermont can’t take immediate steps towards lowering the cost of health care and covering the remaining Vermonters who are uninsured.”

(Kinzel) Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Welch isn’t buying into the governor’s timetable for action. Welch says a serious reform of the state’s health care problems will take some time:

(Welch) “The big problem we have right now in Vermont is the cost of health care, is creating competitive disadvantage for folks. We’ve gone from $1.9 billion to $3.2 billion. That’s a problem that’s developed over the last 50 years, it’s not going to solved in 20 minutes.”

(Kinzel) Serious debate over the governor’s Medicaid deficit reduction plan probably won’t begin until early April. That’s when Douglas hopes to find out if the Bush administration will support the governor’s proposal to create a pilot Medicaid block grant program that would give the state much more flexibility in using federal funds. If the waiver is not granted, a key Douglas administration official says things will “get ugly” at the Statehouse.

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

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