Gov. Scott fields questions on health care and global warming

MIDDLEBURY — Republican Gov. Phil Scott on Monday morning at American Legion Post 27 told a crowd of almost 80 residents, students and lawmakers why his proposed 2019-2020 budget would boost Vermont, with an emphasis on limiting increases to fees and taxes while growing the economy and the state’s population.
Afterward Scott fielded questions about issues, notably climate change and health care, and repeatedly stated preferences for incentives over what he called potentially costly mandates.
Scott was speaking at a “Governor’s Breakfast,” part of the series of Legislative Breakfasts sponsored by the Bridport Grange and the Addison County Farm Bureau.
In his opening remarks Scott said his budget focused on three central goals: “Growing the economy, making Vermont more affordable, and protecting the most vulnerable.”
Scott pointed out the state has lost 15,000 from its labor force since 2009, with every county except Chittenden affected, including 1,100 in Addison County.
“We must make sure that our state spending isn’t growing faster than our economy,” Scott said. “My budget proposes spending more than we did last year, but I’m not proposing raising significant taxes and fees.”
The governor said his budget includes $2.5 million more to market Vermont to residents elsewhere, following the template of the attention-getting offer of $10,000 to lure telecommuting tech workers to the state, an overture that generated 30,000 enquiries and a handful of applications.
“We need more taxpayers, not more taxes,” Scott said, quoting a businessperson he met on the campaign trail. “So my agenda this session focuses on helping Vermonters find a job or start a career … Recruiting more families and workers to Vermont to reverse our demographic trends is part of the answer. We must do this while making Vermont more affordable.”
After Scott finished speaking, questions about global warming came hot and heavy.
A Middlebury College student who identified himself as Alec asked what the governor was doing to help 60 bills dealing with the threat become law.
“I believe climate change is real,” Scott said.
He spoke of the state’s long-range goal of transitioning to renewable energy, including his budget’s $1.5 million in incentives to supply rebates to buyers of electric vehicles.
“I’m completely committed to 90 percent renewables by 2050,” Scott said, adding, “Things are changing, and for the better.”
East Middlebury resident Greta Hardy-Mittell asked if the governor favored bills that would fund weatherization of the state’s aging housing stock.
“I’m in favor of weatherization,” Scott said. “I don’t believe we need to raise a tax to do so.”
Instead, Scott said, he would favor a “change in the tax structure” that would give developers and builders incentives for buying, retrofitting and reselling older buildings.
Discussion of a Vermont House bill that “proposes to establish a universal, publicly financed primary care program for all Vermont residents beginning in 2023” sparked back-and-forth between the governor and Barb Wilson of Shoreham and Ellen Oxfeld of Middlebury.
ELLEN OXFELD OF Middlebury address the governor at Monday’s breakfast. Photo by Benjy Renton
The bill, H-129, would publicly fund access for all to family physicians and other primary care providers, but not for specialists, hospital stays or other more expensive parts of the health care sector.
Wilson asked the governor if he supported the bill, and Scott pivoted to the separate effort to standardize the way Vermont pays for and delivers health care as way to control costs, the state’s “all-payer” approach. 
“I would say that the all-payer model is showing signs of success. It revolves around a different payer model, also around prevention. A high percentage of the effort is around prevention. I believe that is part of the answer for the future. Here’s our issue. We have 626,000 people in the state of Vermont, and as I said before we’re seeing more deaths than births. We’re aging. We have a younger population we need desperately in the state. That in itself will help in many respects,” Scott said.
“I don’t know that forcing people into buying health insurance that they can’t afford is the answer,” Scott added. “And I don’t know who’s going to pay for it. We had the debate on single-payer for five or six years and we determined we couldn’t afford it.”
Wilson then said the bill did not cover all health care, as did the state’s earlier single-payer effort.
“This is only focusing on universal primary care,” Wilson said.
“Maybe you can tell us what the difference is,” Scott said.
“Universal primary care is providing primary care access to every single Vermonter, getting the insurance companies out of that particular service and allowing doctors to practice primary care,” Wilson said.
“That sounds like single-payer,” Scott said, adding, “Show me how much it’s going to cost and who’s going to pay for it.”
Oxfeld then took her turn in explaining H-129 to the governor. Oxfeld said that the primary care the bill intends to fund represents only about $200 million of the $6 billion Vermonters spend on health care every year, about a third of which she said goes to private insurance company overhead and not to patient care.
AMY GRAHAM, LEFT, and her daughter, Ari, were among a crowd of almost 80 people who listen to — and in some cases interrogated — Gov. Phil Scott at American Legion Post 27 in Middlebury on Monday morning.
Independent photo/John S. McCright
Oxfeld said patients forego visits to primary care providers because of high deductibles and co-pays, visits that could prevent higher costs down the road.
“Then all Vermonters who have access to primary care would not delay going to the doctor. Right now people delay because of high out-of-pocket costs. Doctors will tell you people will come into their offices with symptoms of pneumonia or they come into the office with Stage 4 cancer because they never went to the doctor even though they had insurance due to high out-of-pockets,” Oxfeld said.
“As a good conservative why not support moving toward a more efficient, publicly financed health care system that will save money and save lives?” Oxfeld added.
Scott said the legislature, dominated by Democrats, would have the final say.
“I didn’t create the health care system we have today, and maybe we do it a lot differently if we could have a do-over. I look forward to the discussion in the legislature on this very bill,” he said. “But I still want to see who’s going to pay for it, how much it’s going to cost, and how do we actually pay for it.”
Middlebury resident Andrew Pezzulo asked Scott if he would support making Election Day a state holiday to encourage turnout.
Scott said he was not sure that would be effective because even though state workers got Town Meeting Day off statewide turnout was only 18 percent on March 5.
REPS. AMY SHELDON and Robin Scheu share a laugh at Monday’s breakfast.
Independent photo/John S. McCright
Middlebury resident David Silberman asked if Scott would support H-162, which would “remove buprenorphine from the misdemeanor crime of possession of a narcotic.” Silberman said buprenorphine has been proven effective, especially in Chittenden County, in treating opioid addiction, but members of Scott’s administration are opposing the bill.
Scott said he agreed that opioid addiction is a serious problem, but did not address the bill specifically nor members of his administration’s feelings toward it.
“If we can learn from Chittenden County, we’re all ears,” he said, adding, “I’m open to different ideas, but let’s make sure they work.”
Mount Abraham Union High School senior Cora Funke asked Scott if he favored S-113, a bill that if passed would prohibit restaurants from providing plastic and Styrofoam carryout containers and plastic straws to customers.
Scott said he was “not opposed to that,” but qualified his answer by stating, “I think anything we can do to incentivize is better.”

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