Senate debate on health care reform plan to conclude on Wednesday

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(Host) The Senate has given its preliminary approval to a health care reform plan that provides primary coverage to all uninsured Vermonters beginning next summer. The plan is financed by imposing a payroll tax on employers who don’t offer health insurance to their employees. These workers would also have to pay this new tax.

VPRs Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) The bill is targeted at the roughly forty-thousand uninsured Vermonters who don’t qualify for existing Medicaid coverage. The proposal provides primary and preventative care beginning in July of 2006. Hospitalization benefits would be included starting in the summer of 2009.

The plan calls for several cost containment provisions including; new budget caps for hospitals, funding for a chronic care initiative, the use of new electronic information technology and insurance discounts for consumers with healthy lifestyles.

Senate Health and Welfare chairperson Jim Leddy says the bill is needed because he thinks the state faces a health care crisis.

(Leddy) “And yet we struggle and cannot find a way, essentially, as the only country in the industrialized world that for some reason or other cannot find in its pocketbook, or perhaps in its heart that every one of its citizens of this state and this country deserve and should be given basic health care protection.”

(Kinzel) Most of the cost containment provisions ad bi-partisian support. The real fight over the bill was over how to pay for it. The Democrats’ plan imposes a new payroll tax on companies that don’t offer insurance to their employees. The workers would also have to pay the new tax. To deal with the concerns of many small businesses, the bill exempts the first twenty-five thousand dollars of salary from the tax.

To consider this part of the bill, Senate Democrats had to overturn a ruling by Lt. Governor, Brian Dubie, that found that the tax component was out of order, because the Vermont Constitution calls for all tax bills to begin in the House.

Bennington senator, Mark Shepard, opposed the payroll tax because he believes it’s the first step towards a single-payer system.

(Shepard) “While this may be a small group of folks paying this tax at this point, clearly the goal is to make it universal across all Vermonters.”

Senate Finance chairwoman, Ann Cummings, defended the use of the payroll tax.

(Cummings) “The principle that the Senate Finance is operating under, is that everyone has to bear the cost of health insurance – some portion of that cost in an equitable fashion.”

The Senate is expected to conclude its debate over this bill on Wednesday.

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

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