Shumlin Signs Health Care Bill Into Law

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(Host) Governor Peter Shumlin has signed a bill that puts Vermont on a path to become the first state in the country to adopt a single-payer health system.

Shumlin said Vermont is now a national leader on health care. And a local grassroots group wants to help other states follow Vermont’s example.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Shumlin) "We gather here today to launch the first single payer health care system in America."

(Dillon) Governor Peter Shumlin addressed a crowd of about 150 people on the Statehouse steps.

"To do in Vermont what has taken too long: have a health care system that’s the best in the world, that treats health care as a right, and not a privilege."

(Dillon) After he signed the bill, Shumlin gave the pen he used to Doctor Deb Richter, a primary care physician who has lobbied for years for a universal, government-funded system of coverage.

Richter said the law makes history because it establishes health care coverage as a public good, regardless of a person’s employment or economic status.

But she also acknowledged that the hard job of designing the system – and how to pay for it – lies ahead.

(Richter) "And now the real work begins. We have a long road ahead of us to get this bill in place. But after the party."

(Dillon) Joining in the celebration were members of the Health Care is a Human Right Campaign. Long before this legislative session, the organizers held community forums around the state where neighbors spoke to neighbors about being unable to pay medical bills, or being denied coverage for pre-existing illnesses.

The personal testimony propelled the political momentum for the legislation. Mary Gerisch of Bennington worked on the campaign in southwestern Vermont.

(Gerisch) "All we had to do was look at our neighbors, our relatives, and our friends and many, many stories popped up. And the more the stories were shared the more we realized that one common element of our humanity is that we are all subject to illness, and we shouldn’t be so poor that we can’t live."

(Dillon) But it will be a number of years before the promise of universal coverage becomes a reality. The law sets up a five-person board that will design the system, develop cost control efforts, and determine a benefit package.

The board and the governor will also recommend a plan for how to pay for the new health care system.

The Vermont Medical Society, which represents the state’s physicians, says the law does very little initially. Paul Harrington is the group’s vice president. He says the measure calls for about 16 separate studies on health care issues.

(Harrington) "The most substantive provisions of this bill, at least what the governor is focused on, the so-called single payer, really won’t happen under current law at the earliest until 2017 – six years from now. So the Legislature, the governor, Vermont physicians, patients, employers, will be focused on this issue for the rest of this decade."    

(Dillon) Federal law says states have to wait until 2017 to launch single payer plans. Shumlin hopes to get Congress to move that date up to 2014.

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

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