Single-payer advocates make health care pitch

BRISTOL — Vermonters are dying because they cannot afford health care, Montpelier physician Deb Richter told a gathering of concerned citizens at the Bristol firehouse Thursday night. Patients with little or no health insurance often delay seeking primary care until it is too late, she added.
“Our health care system is a catastrophe,” Richter said.
A longtime advocate for single-payer health care, Richter teamed up with Lincoln resident Mike Fisher, health care advocate for Vermont Legal Aid, to lead a discussion about universal primary care. Bristol Democratic Party chair Linda Andrews organized the event, which drew about 40 people.
Richter told the story of one patient who waited four days before seeking treatment for severe shortness of breath. The patient by then was panting and could barely speak. It turned out the patient had suffered a heart attack, Richter said.
In another case the cost for a single-dose prescription treatment had risen from $5 to $450 because the drug maker now had a monopoly. Richter was able to obtain the medicine from Canada for $6.
“How many such stories could we come up with in this room?” Richter asked.
And it’s not just the uninsured who are struggling, Fisher said. Stuck with bills they thought their insurance companies were supposed to pay, some ill Vermonters just give up, feeling like they’ve run out of treatment options. The free healthcare hotline Fisher oversees fields about 4,000 calls a year from frustrated, confused and sometimes desperate Vermonters.
This is why Vermont needs universal primary care, according to advocates.
Committees in the Vermont Legislature are considering a bill — S.53/H.248, sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Clair Ayer, D-Addison, and co-sponsored in the House by Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol — that would “establish a system of universal, publicly financed primary care for all Vermonters beginning in 2019.”
The bill, if passed, would cover chronic and preventive care, as well as mental health and substance abuse care.
Though it represents less than 6 percent of the state’s overall health care costs, primary care is “the front door to the health care system,” Richter said. Universal access would save both lives and money, she noted.
Once Vermonters see the results, Fisher added, the other components necessary for creating a system of publicly funded universal health care will look like no-brainers.
Though supporters are hopeful about the bills’ prospects, it’s a long way from being a done deal. Richter said if the bill makes it to the full Senate it might still need two votes to reach a tie that would have to be broken by Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman.
Lawmakers are wary of creating another Act 48, Fisher said, referring to legislation then-Gov. Peter Shumlin signed in 2011 outlining the benefits of a universal health care system without specifying how those benefits would be paid for. In the end, universal health care never came about in Vermont.
“They’re afraid of overpromising,” Fisher said.
Richter acknowledged the current bill doesn’t include a funding mechanism.
Democratic gubernatorial candidates James Ehlers and Christine Hallquist spoke briefly in support of the bill. Speaking as an employer, Hallquist, who is CEO of Vermont Electric Coop, acknowledged the cost-saving benefits of such a bill. Ehlers, who heads Lake Champlain International, urged supporters to keep up the pressure on lawmakers.
No movement on the bill was expected until the Legislature reconvenes after Town Meeting Day.
Christopher Ross can be reached at [email protected].

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