Some lawmakers want a ‘public option’ for Vermont

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(Host) As Congress considers the pros and cons of creating a new public health care plan, some advocates in Vermont want state lawmakers to adopt a similar model here.

As VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports, many of the arguments being debated at the national level are likely to emerge as part of the discussion in the Legislature this winter.

(Kinzel) When the Catamount Health Care program was passed several years ago, it included a provision that called for a comprehensive review of the program’s public-private partnership if the state didn’t achieve the goal of insuring at least 96% of all Vermonters by 2010.

Recent studies show that progress has been made in reducing the state’s uninsured rate but it’s clear the target won’t be met.

Catamount is administered by two private insurance companies, Blue Cross and MVP and the state offers premium subsidies to individuals based on a person’s income level.

The question facing the Vermont’s Health Care Commission this fall is, ‘does this system work or should the state consider creating its own public plan’?

Peter Sterling is the director of the Vermont Campaign for Health Care Security – a group that wants to expand health care coverage in the state. He wants lawmakers to create a state public plan:

(Sterling) "Right now we’d love to see Catamount Health opened to everybody. We’d love to see it open to businesses so they could buy for their employees. It’s a great, great health care plan with a great benefit package and we think it would serve Vermont well to have more Vermonters in it, not less."

(Kinzel) And Sterling says he’s convinced that a state run plan will save money:

(Sterling) "There are certain costs that a private insurance company will always have that the state of Vermont will not have…which means at the end of the day the state of Vermont probably can offer Catamount health at a cheaper price than a private carrier."

(Kinzel) Governor Jim Douglas opposes this idea because he thinks a state run program will be less efficient than the current system:

(Douglas) "I really think we have something good going for us in Vermont. We have a public private partnership that has resulted in more people getting health insurance in our state, in containing the cost of Medicaid while still maintaining a very generous and robust program."

(Kinzel) And Douglas says the Legislature shouldn’t make major changes to Catamount at a time when Congress is addressing health care reform:

(Douglas) "Everything I’ve seen in terms of the reform initiatives working their way through the Congress suggests that the states will be extremely busy putting in place the infrastructure to implement whatever the Congress ultimately passes I don’t think we want to spend more time and energy and money on changes in the health care bureaucracy in Vermont."

(Kinzel) The Health Care Reform Commission is scheduled to deliver its recommendations to the Legislature in January.

For VPR News I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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