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Shooting for the Moon

Inside Track

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It's never been done before. No one has successfully taken on the most bloated industry the U.S. has ever known -- health care -- and won.

We all consider it an absolute right in the land of the free and home of the brave. We want the best treatment regardless of the cost, and we want it instantly when we suffer an accident or affliction. But somebody always pays, and that somebody is us.

Most people think the only payouts they make for health care are for their own insurance and pharmaceuticals. But Rep. John Tracy, the determined chairman of the House Health Care Committee, has been hammering home the point that we pay for health care every time we buy almost anything.

Whether it's a new car or a new bike, a portion of the purchase price goes to pay for the health insurance the manufacturer provides for its workers.

When you pay your property tax, a portion -- an ever-growing portion -- goes to pay for the health insurance for the folks in the clerk's office and the classroom.

The fact is, we pay almost twice as much per capita on health care as do our friends in Canada and France. But they live longer and have have lower infant-mortality rates.

Go figure.

Vermont Democrats, led by House Speaker Gaye Symington and State Sen. Peter Welch, are determined to devise a Vermont-based system that will control the expanding monster that is health care. And you can be sure, the rest of the country will be watching.

And what they'll be watching looks to be a slam-down, drag-out battle reminiscent of the Cold War.

As everyone knows, Republican Gov. Jim Douglas is vehemently opposed to the reform movement. Gov. Scissorhands has slammed the Democratic attempt since the day the session started. And Friday night, at the jam-packed GOP fundraiser at the Wyndham Hotel (more on that later), he fed the lions with a passionate call to arms.

"Democrats have proposed a government-run, taxpayer-financed health-care rationing plan," scoffed Douglas. "It would dramatically raise taxes. It would put health-care decisions in the hands of politicians and government bureaucrats -- a prospect I fundamentally and unequivocally oppose."

Douglas told the faithful the Democrat plan "would raise $2 billion in new taxes and would be devastating to our economy."

In fact, said the Guv, the fact that some of Vermont's leaders are even talking about such a terrible thing in public "is already having a chilling effect on our ability to recruit and retain jobs, and threatens to reverse the gains we've made in the last couple years."

We found ourselves caught up in the crowd noise. For the good of Vermont, won't the Democrats please shut up and go away?

But when things quieted down, we realized the political expertise in Douglas' verbal assault. Words, after all, do count a whole lot in the political game.

Speaker Symington gave Douglas a backhanded compliment in response. "Clearly the administration has done its polling," she said. "They know the words that scare people."

Hey, isn't our current system already pretty much "government-run?" And aren't taxpayers of every stripe already paying out the "$2 billion" Douglas calls "new" taxes?

Though the Douglas team will lose in the House vote this week, it's poised for a long battle to a bitter end. Nothing gets the blood flowing within the Scissorhands Circle more than Simple Symington's health-care challenge.

In an exclusive no-holds-barred exchange with "Inside Track" this week, a source from the Douglas inner circle portrayed H. 524, the Democrats' health-care reform bill, as nothing more than a "far-left" attempt to bring "socialized medicine" to the Green Mountains.

Ah, yes, the "Better Dead Than Red" days are back!

Speaking on condition of anonymity, Deep Head said the Ds "know they have a political monopoly on the issue. It's the one issue where Democrats consistently out-poll Republicans."

From where Deep Head sits, "The far left controls the House, and they are ideologically predisposed to socialized medicine. In my view, they are very sincere, but very misguided. Blinded by the light, so to speak. But there is a big difference between a vision and a hallucination."

H. 524 doesn't have all the answers, yet. It does, however, set a path for change. The timelines for implementation are flexible and negotiable. The bill will spark a number of studies and an ever-widening public discussion of what we've got now and what could work better.

Deep Head scoffs at the Democrats having "to waste more time studying it in the first place." The bill's "statement of purpose," notes Deep Head, makes it clear where all the studies will lead.

That statement of purpose reads: "This bill would establish the goal of universal access to essential health-care services through a publicly financed, integrated, regional health-care delivery system in Vermont, provide mechanisms for cost containment in the system, and provide a framework, schedule and process to achieve that goal."

You can read the entire bill as proposed by visiting http://www.leg.state.vt.us/healthcare/.

"The answer, lest there be any confusion," said Deep Head, "is that it's a single-payer bill disguised as a study to give the moderates cover. The question is, what will the moderates do next year?"

Yes, indeed, this is all about next year, isn't it?

Next year, November in particular, is when Vermonters will decide if they want to keep a Republican at the controls of state government. In Deep Head's view, health care is the only arrow in the Democratic quiver.

"People need to run for reelection, and this issue is really all they've got at the moment," said Deep Head.

Make no mistake, Speaker Symington, she of the strong backbone, thinks the common people are behind her on this one. She's a new figure on the state's political stage. People are just getting to know her. And, like Joan of Arc, Speaker Gaye is determined to let her actions speak louder than her words.

"I don't think it's enough," said Mama Gaye at the Oasis Diner counter Monday, "for us to simply study the solution. Vermonters want us to address the cost of health care. They have had it," she added with her voice rising, "with politicians laying out nice-sounding principles and then backing away!"

H. 524, said Symington "sets out a reasonable goal and a reasonable way of getting there, and brings people to the table to say, 'What do you think?'"

Symington, along with Rep. Tracy and Sen. Welch, chose Burlington's Oasis Diner as the location for their first press event to promote the bill.

Owners David and Jon Lines are small-business owners who wish they could afford health insurance for their employees. In fact, they said, they can't even afford it for themselves!

The Oasis has long been a hometown Democratic hangout. About 35 years ago, State's Attorney Pat Leahy was a regular. He still is when he's in town. In fact, Sen. Leahy regularly uses the Oasis as a backdrop for his campaign commercials.

We'll see if the diner luck works for health-care reform the way it has for St. Patrick.

Other Opponents? -- We know the Guv and most Republicans don't like the Democratic plan, but it was surprising to get the Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems' take on Ch. 3's "You Can Quote Me" last Sunday.

For some strange reason, however, newsmen Marselis Parsons and Anson Tebbetts never even brought up H. 524 until the last five minutes of the program.

Yes, said President Bea Grause, the association does officially "oppose" the bill in its current form. But Grause and Rutland Hospital President Tom Huebner went out of their way to express support for Symington's attempt to fix what all agree is a broken system.

"The bill in the House this week, we really think has a lot of good in it," said Huebner. Symington and Tracy "have tried to be very thoughtful about creating a debate in Vermont about where the health-care system should go," he added. "We really think that's the right thing to have happen. There are pieces of the bill that we think are great. There are pieces of the bill that are moving awfully fast."

Vermont hospitals, said Grause, consider the Democrat attempt to "start a public process and a conversation" on our health-care future "critically important."

"We have committed to Speaker Symington and John Tracy that we will be constructive in that conversation and we intend to be. So, I'm not worried so much about the legislative details. I think the bill's going to pass as it is, and we'll see what happens in the Senate."

The Douglas administration, however, isn't interested in being constructive. The host of releases this week from Douglas cabinet members trashing H. 524 are proof positive the administration's goal is to be as destructive as possible.

The battle royale has begun.

Exclusive Report! -- White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card was in Burlington for a well-attended GOP fundraiser Friday night at the Wyndham Hotel. About 400 Republicans shelled out $125 a ticket to attend the dinner. About 150 shelled out a lot more to attend a more personal, pre-dinner get-together with Mr. Card.

You may not have heard about it, because none of Vermont's mainstream press covered the event. Not even WGOP-TV sent a crew.

Very, very strange.

Certainly, GOP Chairman Jim Barnett did not try to draw a lot of attention. Card was not available for questions.

We did attend, however. Wore a nice jacket and tie, too. But that did not prevent Mr. Barnett from quickly escorting yours truly out of the high-roller event the minute he spotted us.

Incidentally, yours truly didn't set out to crash the Republican party. Mad Dog had told us earlier it would be closed to media. But so many friendly attendees, including administration officials, urged us to join them that we finally asked permission from the ticket-takers at the door and they consented.

Chairman Barnett, however, did not show "journalist" James Dwinell the door. A former executive director of the Vermont GOP, Dwinell puts out an almost-weekly online crib sheet expressing his political whims and fancies.

Hey, it's a free country. In fact, a few years back yours truly stood up for Sir James when Gov. Howard Dean questioned his credentials at a gubernatorial press conference. More on James later.

Upstairs, guests were getting their photos snapped with Card for $2000 a picture.

Barnett opened the main event by picking on Peter Clavelle. The Burlington mayor, he told the faithful, "crisscrossed the state attacking the president, and it's funny because President Bush didn't have one bad word to say about Peter Clavelle."

Barnett also mocked the Democrat health-care plan, as did Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie and Gov. Douglas who followed him.

Mad Dog described the Democrat message as "Pay more. Get less. Take a ticket and wait in line."

Dubie portrayed the political moment as one reminiscent of the civil-unions battle of 2000 when the radical left was "descending on the Statehouse, flying in from all over the country, and using our state as a guinea pig once again."

Douglas gave his usual condemnation soundbite. But before that, the very first words out of our governor's mouth were praise for the "outstanding job" being done by young Karl Rove of Vermont -- Jim Barnett.

"He's working so hard, so effectively to strengthen the Republican Party to get ready for the campaign next year. Jim, thank you for your leadership," said Douglas.

"And it's always a great thrill," he continued, "to look around this room and see so many million dollars, uh, I mean faces!"

Card gave the keynote. He described the GOP as "the party that spreads freedom." Thanks to Dubya, he boasted, Afghani women can now "show their faces and their ankles."

Will miniskirts be next?

Interesting that here at home the only specific "freedom" Card mentioned was "freedom of ownership."

It was a plug for the bankrupt Bush Social Security plan, a nonstarter guaranteed to give Americans the freedom to be destitute when they retire.

Card closed with a slow, sanctimonious tale about the "most memorable day of my life." It sounded like a sermon he had delivered many times before to similar gatherings of true believers.

Andy's "most memorable day" was September 14, 2001, when Bush "prayed" with his cabinet, "prayed" with Rev. Billy Graham, and "prayed" with the families of those missing at Ground Zero.

Did you know President Bush begins every cabinet meeting with a prayer?

No doubt, there's evidence praying works.

After all, our president's prayer that the American people do not wake up and hold him accountable for the 9/11 attacks has, so far, been answered.

So far, no one has been held accountable for the greatest security lapse in American history.

A miracle!

Slime Time -- It's no secret Republicans want to get even with Independent Sen. Jim Jeffords for exiting the GOP back in 2001. Chairman Barnett has used Jeezum Jim the "Turncoat" as a fundraising vehicle.

Fair game.

But the recent rumor campaign that questions the senator's physical and mental health is beyond the pale.

James Dwinell's latest edition makes the outrageous claim that Sen. Jeffords has Alzheimer's.

Rumors travel fast. The slimier the rumor, the faster it travels.

Jeffords spokeswoman Diane Derby was not eager to dignify Dwinell's dirt. But we had to ask. Does Jeezum have Alzheimer's?

"No," was the emphatic answer.

As for his health, Derby told us Jeffords "is under the care of the Attending Physician, Congress of the United States, for medical conditions, none of which is extraordinary for anyone his age."

We concur. Jeffords at 70 is the same dude he was in 1980 when we first met. He always was a little quirky.

And what about Dwinell?

"Dwinell's lack of respect is only matched by his lack of integrity," replied Derby.

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