BRATTLEBORO -- Under pressure from two of the state’s most active health care advocate groups, six Windham County lawmakers vowed to push for a universal health care bill when they return to Montpelier next January.
The five Democrats and one Progressive voiced their opinions at the Tuesday night People’s Forum on Health Care at Brattleboro Union High School.
The health care crusade event, sponsored by the Vermont Workers Center and the Vermont Citizens Campaign for Health, pushed local lawmakers to stand behind the principle that health care is a human right.
"I can make this really short, yes," said Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham. Reps. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, and John Moran, D-Wardsboro, also extended corresponding viewpoints to the crowd.
Rep. Ann Manwaring, D-Wilmington, said she watched the health insurance costs steadily sink her small businesses for years. While ensuring health care is a right in Vermont, Manwaring said it has to go beyond that and look at how to keep residents healthy to support the slumping market.
"Without a healthy population, we don’t have a healthy economy," she said. It is a bigger issue than just the human rights aspect, she added.
Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, D-Windham, said he has remained a longtime sponsor of the single payer health plan and would like to work with Vermont’s congressional delegation in Washington, D.C., and the Obama administration to allow the state to establish a pilot program that would provide universal care for all residents.
"Let’s show them how we can do it in Vermont, and the other 49 states will follow," he said.
Legislators heard from local residents, small business owners and students earlier in the evening, something Rep. Sarah Edwards, P-Brattleboro, said is critical for the campaign to push forward.
The best way to break the constant feeding of data from both sides is to hear the tales about health insurance from fellow Vermonters, said Edwards, who told the audience about her experiences without insurance. "Keep telling the stories, I think that’s what we have to do."
Although Brattleboro Progressive Rep. Mollie Burke was not in attendance, she sent a written statement also supporting a single payer health plan.
Lawmakers also discussed two bills at the Statehouse when they return, one in the House and a similar measure in the Senate, that calls for the implementation of health care policies based upon principles defining it as a human right.
Richard Davis, executive director of the Vermont citizens campaign, said the identical bills (Senate bill 88 and House bill 100) call upon the state to establish universal health care as a public good and make it a policy in the state to ensure complete access to essential care services. The legislation also would have the state provide hospitals with annual, negotiated global budgets and cover all essential services under a publicly sponsored benefits package, said Davis.
Shumlin did said, however, the bills have some flaws because there are many Vermonters happy with the current deal they have with the state and do not want to risk those good health care benefits. It is going to be tough to convince them there is a better way, he said.
According to Mrowicki, the Legislature passed a similar measure in 2006, but it was vetoed by Gov. James Douglas.
"I’m not going to make empty promises that we’re going to do this, but we’re going to try," said Mrowicki.
Turning around the health care system is a dauntless task, much like trying to turn around an aircraft carrier, said Moran, but Vermont can take the lead in the nation with these changes.
"I think it is time for us to take action and do what we have to do," he said.
Manwaring agreed, saying the two measures are a valuable departure point for whatever comes down from the federal level in the coming months. "I believe that introducing these bills is an excellent starting point," she added.
Both bills are expected to change while in session.
Although billed as a public forum, one man inquired about the title when the event did not offer a question-and-answer period for the audience. The same man also offered a different opinion following the event, handing out information indicating health care is a commodity service, not a human right.
The Brattleboro event was part of a series of forums the Vermont Workers Center is hosting around the state, with the next event scheduled for Burlington on Thursday.
Chris Garofolo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311 ext. 275.