The Senate Health and Welfare Committee is expected to vote out a compromise health care bill today, just two days after roughly 1000 people gathered on the Statehouse lawn calling on lawmakers to keep moving toward the creation of a universal health care system. Debate on the bill is scheduled in the Senate later today.
About 1000 people Saturday gathered in the sun, marching from Montpelier's City Hall to the State House chanting, "The system, get off it. Our health is not for profit."
The statewide rally was organized by the Vermont Worker's Center as part of its "Health Care is a Human Right" campaign.
The rally was larger than last year's health care rally, but this year attendees were celebrating some small victories.
While the national health care reform effort fell short of the single-payer system many at Saturday's rally hope to see the United State adopt, attendees were hopeful Vermont can design and implement the nation's first state-run single-payer system.
This year, the Senate and House have been working on various efforts to redesign Vermont's health care system. The House has taken a more proactive approach and called for specific reforms — all connected to the state's Blueprint for Health model, which aims at more preventative medicine. The Senate, meanwhile, wants to commission an analysis of Vermont's health care system and to have a consultant come back to the Legislature in January with three options on how to design, and implement, a universal health care system. One of those options would be a single-payer model.
By 2017, states will be able to opt out of the national system if they can get waivers from the federal government, but U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is working with colleagues to move that date up to 2014.
Sanders told the crowd Vermont should continue its efforts, even though there is doubt about whether it could receive the necessary waivers to implement a single-payer system. As more states demonstrate an interest in opting out of the federal system, it only gives Sanders and other single-payer supporters in the Senate more examples of why states should be allowed to experiment with other models.
"Vermont can lead the way," Sanders told an enthusiastic crowd.
Sanders was the only politician to speak to the full crowd, though several statewide candidates milled about throughout the day, including four of the five Democratic gubernatorial candidates Sen. Susan Bartlett, Matt Dunne, Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin. Racine was out of town this weekend.
Rep. Steve Howard (D-Rutland), a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, also talked with attendees as did Democratic hopeful for Secretary of State — former State Sen. Jim Condos.
Two of the secessionist candidates — gubernatorial hopeful Dennis Steele and lite guv hopeful Peter Garritano — also talked with rallygoers.
Other speakers said Vermont has come a long way since last year, when universal health care advocates gathered en masse on the State House steps. At that time, health care reform was not on the legislative agenda — at least not like it is this year.
Now, the legislature is poised to pass a sweeping piece of legislation aimed at overhauling Vermont's health care system.
"What a difference a year makes," said Jen Henry, a nurse and president of United Professions / American Federation of Teachers of Vermont. The union represents nurses and lab technicians at Fletcher Allen Health Care as well as workers at several other hospitals and colleges in Vermont.
"We wouldn't be here today, celebrating, if it were not for the hard work of thousands of Vermonters — many of whom came to the Statehouse to share their stories about our broken health care system," said Henry, alluding to a Statehouse hearing earlier this year in which hundreds of people testified.
Though S.88 is not perfect, Henry noted, it is still worth supporting and ensuring that lawmakers override a possible gubernatorial veto.
"We need to ensure that any new system works for us, and not for the special interests who are strongly trying to protect a broken system that is governed by greed," said Henry.
James Haslam, the director of the Vermont Worker's Center, which has been leading the "Health Care is a Human Right" campaign, said the organization is not simply going to let candidates vote for S.88 and then walk away.
The VWC has crafted a pledge for candidates to sign to put them on record of not just voting to support healthcare reform this year — and potentially a veto override vote — but to come back next year and make sure that they follow through and implement the system recommended by an outside consultant.
The pledge reads:
"If elected, I pledge to ensure that every Vermonter gets the health care they need, in line with human right principles. I will do this by supporting the design and implementation of a unified health care system (as called for by S. 88, which:
• Shares costs and benefits equitably;
• Serves all Vermonters, regardless of their ability to pay;
• Does not allow for inequality in Vermont's health care with different tiers of access or coverage, and;
• Meets the five human rights principles of Universality, Equity, Accountability, Transparency and Participation."
Haslam said the Vermont Worker's Center will hold candidate forums around the state this summer and fall, as well as continue to survey Vermonters about the current health care system.
"It's amazing to think about where we will be when January 2011 rolls around and this time next year — with a lot of hard work — we will be celebrating the victory of putting in place the new health care system for our state. Let's do it!"