During Harvard Event, Shumlin Analyzes His Single-Payer Failure | Off Message

During Harvard Event, Shumlin Analyzes His Single-Payer Failure


Former governor Peter Shumlin (left) with top health care staffers, Robin Lunge and Lawrence Miller - FILE: PAUL HEINTZ
  • File: Paul Heintz
  • Former governor Peter Shumlin (left) with top health care staffers, Robin Lunge and Lawrence Miller
Peter Shumlin told a group of Harvard University scholars Tuesday that he didn’t have the political capital to pass single-payer health care in Vermont.

The three-term Democratic former Vermont governor revisited his signature political failure during a live-streamed interview with Harvard public health professor John McDonough.

“Was that a policy decision or was that a political decision, do you think?” asked McDonough, referring to Shumlin’s decision to pull the plug on single-payer.

“They’re always both,” Shumlin responded. “There was no way I was gonna get the votes in either the House or the Senate to pass the single-payer plan that I wanted to pass ... I had Progressive senators coming to me saying, ‘What if we just slowed down?’”

In December 2014, Shumlin announced that he was abandoning his effort to create a single-payer health care system. Among the concerns, Shumlin said Tuesday, were the huge tax increase the new system would have required without the guarantee of an immediate reduction in health care costs, unpredictability in the federal government, and reticent state lawmakers.

Shumlin said his failed attempt to build Vermont Health Connect, the online health insurance marketplace, “turned out to be my biggest downfall.” The deeply dysfunctional platform, Shumlin told the audience, meant he “lost tremendous credibility as a leader on health care.”

He also argued that his staff was preoccupied with trying to fix the exchange, to the detriment of actually developing single-payer.

“We just constantly ... were getting distracted from this huge mission of moving to a single-payer system,” Shumlin said. “I had to take my best single-payer people that were hired and put them on [2011's Tropical Storm] Irene, put them on getting the damn exchange to work — you know, all these things.”

The ex-gov, who spent the spring as a visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics, suggested that he took the fall for the failure, sparing lawmakers when other politicians might have thrown them under the bus.

“Most politicians would have said … those legislators are so incompetent, they’ve got no guts, why can’t they pass single-player, it’s the right thing to do,” Shumlin said during Tuesday’s event. “I chose not to do that. I just felt that really this was my idea, I owned it and I needed to own its failure.”

When McDonough asked what lesson could be gleaned from Vermont’s experience, Shumlin responded, “The lesson is, I was wrong. I don’t think small states can go it alone … with an unstable federal partnership.”

He instead endorsed the Medicare for All plan that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced last week, calling it the “smartest way to go.”