MONTPELIER -- Republicans nationwide are hoping to capitalize on states' struggles to implement the Affordable Care Act as a political tool to leverage their candidates in the midterm elections, and Vermont is not immune.

Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, is hopeful the rocky rollout of Vermont Health Connect will make voters question Democrats' ability to overhaul the health care system, he said.

Vermont State Republican Committee Chair David Sunderland also questions Democrats' competence.

"If Vermonters experience this kind of trouble with a website, how much confidence should they have that the state can administer the entire health care system?" he said.

Vermont GOP chair David Sunderland. (Photo by Alicia Freese/VTDigger)
Vermont GOP chair David Sunderland. (Photo by Alicia Freese/VTDigger)

The national Republican Party is planning to target Democratic governors and state legislators in states that set up their own exchanges where rollouts were similarly rough, the New York Times reported.

Although the Times story did not mention Vermont among them, Rafi Williams, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said in an email that the state is on its radar.

The RNC made a public records request last month for information about compensation and vacation time for Mark Larson, commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access.

It made similar requests in at least five other states that created their own exchanges and that have Democratic governors whose terms are up this year.

"Like almost every other state, Vermont has had a terrible experience with the rollout of Obamacare, and we think it will benefit Republicans up and down the ballot," he said.

The Rothenberg Report, a nonpartisan political ranking service, rates Shumlin's seat as currently safe for Democrats, and thus far no candidate has emerged to challenge him.

There are a "tremendous amount" of winnable seats for Republicans in the state Legislature, said Jay Shepard, one of Vermont's representatives to the RNC.

He disagrees with Rothenberg's assessment of Vermont's gubernatorial race, saying that Shumlin is vulnerable against the right candidate.

At a committee meeting Saturday, Vermont's Republicans passed a resolution outlining their own vision for health care reform in the state.

It calls for participation in the exchange to be voluntary and open to more insurers as well as allowing the purchase of insurance across state lines.

Other provisions include protecting the rights of private doctors, ensuring patient choice and access to specialty care. It also states that health care reforms shouldn't negatively impact Vermont's economy, which is already a mandate of Act 48.

The resolution is a precursor to a more detailed plan for health care reform in the state, Sunderland said.

"The Vermont GOP will have a strong forward looking proposal to address the health care challenges in Vermont," he said, adding that he expects to release it over the summer as election season begins to heat up.

The committee also passed a resolution opposing single-payer health care that, depending on whom you ask, either polarized or galvanized the state party's position. Here's what it says: "The state committee members urge legislative and statewide candidates to publicly oppose single payer/government run health care due to the negative impacts on the state's economy and the lives of Vermonters."

The resolution's purpose, Sunderland said, was to reflect growing frustration with what he called "the cloud of mystery" surrounding the Shumlin administration's conception of Green Mountain Care -- the state's planned public universal health care program.

The administration hasn't defined the benefit package, its cost, who will pay for it and how, Sunderland said.

But the uncertainty around Green Mountain Care, which is expected to provide Vermonters with health care coverage starting in 2017, Benning makes opposing it difficult. He thinks the resolution was ill-advised.

"I don't think any responsible legislator would be taking a stand on an abstract concept," he said. "I did not like the idea of the state party demanding a litmus test for legislators."

Benning suggested the resolution was aimed to pressure Lt. Gov. Phil Scott to oppose the Shumlin administration's health care agenda. Scott has voiced skepticism, but not opposition to Shumlin's plans.

Sunderland said the resolution isn't a litmus test -- and wasn't aimed at Scott.

"I don't necessarily think it forces the lieutenant governor into any direction whatsoever," he said.

State Committeewoman Patricia Crocker, who introduced the resolution, said she did not intend it as a litmus test, either.

"I see this as an opportunity for Republicans to be on the right side of this issue," Crocker said.

Scott said he was unable to attend the committee meeting because of another commitment, and wasn't aware of the resolution until Sunday.

"I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but it certainly looks as though it may be targeted at me," Scott said.

It may not have been Sunderland's intention, Scott said, but he believes there is a faction of the Republican Party that is frustrated with him for not publicly opposing Green Mountain Care.

Darcie Johnston, director of Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, said Republicans need to be clear about where they stand on government-run, single-payer health care.

"How do you lead the party without a position?" Johnston asked, "Being a skeptic is not a position."

Scott and other Republicans don't need to wait for the administration to spell out the benefit package or financing plan, she said.

"It's going to require the largest tax increase in state history and it's going to put the government between patients and their doctors," Johnston said.

But Scott said he plans to wait for those details of Green Mountain Care to be enumerated by the administration before he passes judgement.

"It's a practical reaction and I think Vermonters appreciate that," he said.