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Editorial: By nixing single-payer, Shumlin makes a realistic call

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Posted on December 18, 2014 |
By Angelo S. Lynn



On Wednesday, Gov. Peter Shumlin did what leaders are supposed to do: he led. He made the tough decision to nix the push to a statewide single-payer health care system because the financial impact was too great a risk to the state’s economy, at this time, and would put too great a burden on individuals and businesses.

In doing so, he followed through on what he said he would do four years ago when he first campaigned on the issue: He has always maintained that if the numbers didn’t prove that a single-payer system would be better for the state’s economy and better for individual Vermonters, he’d back off. At Wednesday’s press conference, he kept his word.

The good news is that the push for a single-payer initiative was not for naught. Vermont has established mechanisms to help put downward pressure on rising medical costs; as Vermonters, we understand our health care system far better today than we did four years ago, and we know its strengths and weaknesses. We have an idea of what it will take to overcome current obstacles in the path to greater reform in the system. With that knowledge, the state can and will continue to work to contain costs and achieve better patient outcomes.

That is not the Holy Grail, but it is progress.

 Moving forward, Shumlin said, he would continue to work toward “a more rational payment and delivery system.”

Of the political comments made of the governor’s decision, Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison County, had one of the most insightful: “I’m not stunned,” she told the Independent,“and I’m glad the governor did it this way instead of handing (the Legislature) a plan and saying: ‘See if you can make it work.’”

She added that lawmakers who supported the single-payer initiative had more than a dozen criteria that any plan would have to meet, including that the plan be financially sustainable and not have a negative effect on the state’s economy. “I think we would have failed to meet both of those tests for Act 48,” she said of the proposals facing the governor.

What does Wednesday’s decision mean to individual Vermonters?

Essentially, we’ll keep the health care system we have in place today, which includes many of the critical improvements implemented under the federal Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), as well as state mechanisms that have been helped slow the rate of health care costs from double-digits to the lower single digits for the past few years.

Still, it’s painful for Gov. Shumlin to accept the setback.

“It’s heartbreaking for me,” he told the Addison Independentin a phone call late Wednesday afternoon, adding that it is “the biggest disappointment in my political life.” Such genuine disappointment rings true to who this governor is — a passionate politician who cares deeply about making things better for the state and Vermonters, and isn’t afraid to roll the dice for high stakes.

His disappointment, while partly personal, is that he was not able to fix a system he considers fundamentally broken and unjust, and create in its place a system that would provide Vermonters with better health care at a affordable cost. Nor do the numbers, Shumlin admitted, look promising enough to try again anytime soon.

What’s particularly unique about this defeat is that it was not at the hands of political opponents, as much as it was the governor’s own assumptions and miscalculations. Like November’s election, this, too, is a sobering outcome.

One silver lining to Gov. Shumlin’s decision is that it takes health care reform out of the spotlight for the upcoming legislative session and puts education finance reform front and center. Not that finding a better way to finance education will be any easier, but at least the Legislature won’t have two imposing conundrums to manage at the same time.

Angelo S. Lynn

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