What happened to health reform in Vermont?

By Steffie Woolhandler and David U. Himmelstein

Gov. Peter Shumlin’s Dec. 17 announcement that he would not press forward with Vermont’s Green Mountain Care (GMC) reform arose from political calculus rather than fiscal necessity. GMC had veered away from a true single payer design over the past three years, forfeiting some potential cost savings. Yet even the diluted plan on the table before Shumlin’s announcement would probably have lowered total health spending in Vermont, while covering all of the state’s uninsured.

Vermont’s November 2014 gubernatorial election had very low voter turnout, a circumstance that generally favors the right. Gov. Shumlin – who had hedged on health reform during the campaign – eked out a narrow plurality, leaving the state legislature to decide between him and the Republican candidate and greatly weakening Shumlin’s position. A month later, while awaiting the legislature’s decision (they elected him to a third term on Jan. 9), Shumlin announced his pullback from reform.

Shortly thereafter, he released the Green Mountain Care Board’s detailed cost projections which he said had convinced him not to go ahead. The Board estimated zero administrative savings from its proposed plan. It also projected zero savings on drugs and medical devices, tacitly acknowledging that GMC wouldn’t use bargaining clout to rein in prices, and ignoring the fact that Quebec, its neighbor to the North, has gotten big discounts.

The Board’s cost estimates also incorporated an old (too high) estimate of the number of uninsured Vermonters, inflating the projected increase in utilization and cost. Finally, it assumed that doctors would expand their work hours (and incomes) to care for the newly insured, rather than maintaining their current work hours by seeing their other patients a little less frequently – as happened with the implementation of single payer coverage in Quebec.

But even the GMC Board’s inflated cost estimates indicate that universal coverage under its quasi-single payer plan would cost somewhat less overall than the current system. The voluminous Board report includes detailed tabulations of new costs to the state treasury under the proposed reform. But the report scrupulously avoids providing any figures for the impact of reform on the total cost of health care (public and private) in the state. Economist Gerald Friedman has estimated these overall impacts using the report’s data, previous estimates of health expenditures in Vermont, and CMS figures on Medicare spending and expected health care inflation under the ACA. He estimates that even the diluted reform proposed by the GMC Board would cut overall health spending in Vermont by about $500 million annually.

So why did Gov. Shumlin declare the reform unaffordable? Many have noted that the $2.5 billion in new state expenditures required under the reform would nearly double the state’s previous budget. But these numbers are meaningless absent an accounting of the savings Vermont households would realize by avoiding private insurance premiums and out-of-pocket costs. As detailed above, these savings would more than offset the new taxes.

But although the total costs of care would have fallen even under the GMC plan, some – mostly higher-income, healthy Vermonters whose taxes would go up the most – would have paid more. Although the GMC tax plan was far from progressive, it was far less regressive than the current pattern of health care funding in the state. The GMC Board estimated that most of the 340,214 families earning less than $150,000 annually would have gained, while most of the 24,102 families above that income level would have lost. Overall, employers’ costs would have risen by $109 million – with many small businesses experiencing cost increases, a political sore point.

It’s a misnomer to label Vermont’s Green Mountain Care plan “single payer.” It was hemmed in by federal restrictions that precluded including 100 percent of Vermonters in one plan, and its designers further compromised on features needed to maximize administrative savings and bargaining clout with drug firms, and improve health planning.

But even the watered-down plan that emerged could have covered the uninsured, improved coverage for many who currently face high out-of-pocket costs, and actually reduced total health spending in the state – albeit far less than under a true single payer plan. A true single payer plan would have made covering long-term care affordable, and allowed the elimination of all copayments and deductibles.

Vermont’s experience holds important lessons for single payer advocates.

  1. Effective grassroots organizing makes a difference. It got real health care reform on the political radar screen in Vermont, and can get it back on the radar there and elsewhere. Indeed, single payer forces in Vermont are already rallying to reverse Shumlin’s decision. The virtues, value, and simplicity of a single payer approach have broad popular appeal.
  2. Federal restrictions impose significant compromises on state-level single payer plans. For this, as well as other reasons, organizing for single-payer state plans and organizing for national legislation are not competing strategies, but complementary ones. The ultimate goal for both is a single, inclusive program for the entire nation.
  3. As single payer work advances, we need to anticipate that corporate opposition will mobilize – often behind the scenes. The only effective antidote is continued grassroots mobilization. Delayed implementation and punting key decision to the future opens the door for corporate influence and smear campaigns.
  4. Beware of “experts” with a track record unsympathetic to single payer. Economic projections are always based on assumptions, which are often highly political.
  5. Even when we don’t get the whole pie, demanding it often yields a significant piece. Although a major single payer effort was stymied in Vermont, it achieved substantial progress. It’s no accident that Vermont’s uninsurance rate has come down to 3 percent; that virtually all children in that state are covered; that its Medicaid program is among the best; that its hospitals have come under tighter fiscal regulation; and that single payer remains in the limelight there. Even as he backed off from single payer for now, the governor promised to press for future health reform.

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Steffie Woolhandler and David U. Himmelstein are professors at the City University of New York’s School of Public Health at Hunter College, and lecturers at Harvard Medical School. They co-founded Physicians for a National Health Program.