Friday February 22, 2013

MONTPELIER -- Consultants working on Gov. Peter Shumlin’s push for a universal health care system were paid tens of thousands of dollars for work that never appeared in their recommendations, a group critical of the plan said Thursday, accusing the governor of hiding yet again how much universal health care would cost.

The University of Massachusetts Medical School consultants were nearly ready to recommend tax increases to pay for universal health care last fall when they were steered away from completing the work, said Jeff Wennberg, executive director of Vermonters for Health Care Freedom. He joined Republican legislative leaders at a news conference to unveil documents from a public-records request that included correspondence between administration officials and the consultants.

"The consultants billed and were paid for nearly $40,000 for work on the taxing plan -- work that never appeared in the final report," Wennberg said.

Wennberg said emails between state officials and the consultants indicated the administration changed course in November. The consultants were analyzing tax systems to support single-payer health care on Nov. 16, he said. But by Nov. 26, an administration official told them to stop that work, he said, pointing to a meeting agenda as evidence. The contract with the consultants called on them to complete an analysis of possible funding sources.

An administration official acknowledged that consultants were told to stop working on a tax plan and defended it as a decision to halt work that related developments had relegated to being premature.


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"When we determined it was not time to provide a financing plan, we told them to stop," said Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding.

The consultants’ final report was issued last month.

In 2011, Shumlin signed legislation passed by the Democratic-controlled Legislature that called on Vermont to move well beyond President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul to the sort of single-payer, universal system in place in Canada and elsewhere.

The law called for the administration to produce a financing plan, including what taxes would pay for the new system, by January 2013. Republicans cried foul at the time, saying Shumlin wanted to delay announcing new taxes until after the 2012 election.

By last fall, the administration was saying it wanted to delay further. A hoped-for congressional waiver hasn’t been approved, meaning that under the federal law, the soonest Vermont could implement single-payer health care would be 2017.

But announcing a financing plan four years ahead of that date would be too early, Spaulding said in an interview Thursday.

"We ought to have a thorough discussion about this," rather than rush to complete a financing plan, he said. Administration officials and key lawmakers recently agreed to create a special committee to examine the issue, solicit public comments and make recommendations by late 2014.

Republicans continued to complain about the delay.

Shumlin’s administration is "willing to force his health care reform experiment on Vermonters with no regard for how much it is going to cost of how much damage is done to the state in the process," said Rep. Don Turner of Milton, the House Republican leader. "Vermonters were promised answers to these questions back in 2011 and they are still waiting."