With national health care reform on life support , Vermont lawmakers may be under increasing pressure to do something when they convene in January.
Advocates for a “Medicare for All” system, also known as “single payer,” will hit the ground running on day one of the 2010 legislative session.
On January 6, the first workday for lawmakers, the Vermont Workers’ Center will deliver thousands of signed postcards to them, demanding health care as a human right.
In 2008, the VWC launched the Healthcare Is a Human Right Campaign. On May 1, 2009, it organized a statehouse rally that drew roughly 1000 participants — on a weekday. The VWC is planning another rally for 2010, but this time May 1 falls on a Saturday.
Throughout the fall, VWC held a series of forums around the state. About 800 people, as well as 70 state legislators, took part.
VWC is also teaming up with the state’s largest nurses’ union to push for a single-payer health care system in Vermont.
At a press conference last week, Jennifer Henry, RN, said, “The money and power of the big corporations that [are] creating a storm of distraction in Washington [are] a distant rumbling in Vermont; what we hear loud and clear are the voices of our citizens.” Henry is the president of the 1700-member Fletcher Allen nurses’ union. “We need a Medicare-for-all-style system in Vermont … For a small state, Vermont has often been a leader. We have the will, we have the courage, we have the strength, and now we must work together to make it happen.”
Sen. Doug Racine (D-Chittenden) also supports a single-payer system. “I think we can move forward regardless of what Washington does,” said Racine, who is chair of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee. He plans to host hearings this session to examine how Vermont can move to Medicare for All.
“We’re already operating under a number of Medicaid waivers to provide some programs,” Racine noted, “so we’re providing a lot of health care but in a rather convoluted way.” He’d like Vermont to start building a single-payer model by streamlining our federally funded health care programs.
Racine is one of five Democrats running for governor in 2010.
House Speaker Shap Smith said his chamber is likely to take up a single-payer bill, as well as another bill by Rep. Paul Poirier (I-Barre), which would merge all state, municipal and educational workers into one insurance pool. Other residents could then buy insurance through that larger pool, hopefully at significantly lower costs.
Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin isn’t sure a single piece of legislation will emerge this session, but he expects progress. Like Racine, Shumlin is running for governor.
“I’ve lost all hope that Washington is going to pass a health care bill that is helpful to Vermont,” said Shumlin. “I’ve recognized Vermont is going to have to go it alone in moving to a system that allows health care to follow individuals and not employers. That should be Vermont’s goal.”
He said he’d like to see Vermont model its insurance system after Taiwan’s.
So would Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). He used Taiwan as a model of health care reform during a recent floor speech touting the single-payer model.
“After searching the entire world, Taiwan decided to model their system after Medicare,” noted Sanders. “But, they decided to insure everyone.”
Similarly, Racine notes that merging various programs like Dr. Dynasaur, VHAP and long-term care under a single Medicaid waiver could save enough money to expand access to more people.
Single-payer advocates claim Vermont could save millions by eliminating bureaucratic waste.
Would the $7 million retirement bonus awarded to the outgoing CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont qualify as bureaucratic waste?
Dr. Deb Richter, of Vermont for Single Payer, suggests as much in a blog post  on her organization’s website. She noted that $7 million could fund:
• nearly 50 primary-care physicians for one year, with each doc serving roughly 1200 patients; or,
• more than 300 home health aides for one year, which would allow seniors to receive care in their homes rather than in more expensive institutions; or,
• more than half of Vermont’s projected $12 million Medicaid shortfall this year; or,
• the salaries of 42 dentists for one year.
Moving to a single-payer model, Richter noted, would save Vermont much more than $7 million annually.
“Estimates range from $50 to $500 million a year,” said Richter. “Imagine how much we could do for the people of Vermont with that kind of money. Our money.”
Reaching for Recognition
After months without a chairperson, Gov. Jim Douglas appointed Charles Delaney-Megeso of Burlington to lead the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs.
The commission has had its share of internal political problems  — three people have held the job in a year — as well as a general lack of support from the legislature and governor.
Delaney-Megeso, a Mazipskwik Abenaki, has worked on native issues for more than two decades. In the 1990s, he was the tribal band’s ambassador to the Vermont and U.S. governments. He was also an indigenous representative to the United Nations from 2002 to 2004, one of many from around the globe who helped draft the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Delaney-Megeso successfully convinced Burlington to recognize the Abenaki in 1995, and was one of the key figures lobbying the state legislature for Abenaki recognition and the creation of the VCNAA, which happened in 2006. He joined the VCNAA in September 2008.
At the beginning of 2009, the VCNAA made Delaney-Megeso its legislative liaison. During the session, he spoke with legislators about the possibility of officially “recognizing” various Abenaki bands next year — legislative “recognition” would lead to additional rights and benefits for the tribe.
Maybe someone should ask each gubernatorial candidate: Do you support full recognition?
In the meantime, Delaney-Megeso and the VCNAA are hosting forums throughout Vermont, trying to engage native people and familiarizing the general public with the commission’s work.
At a December 12 forum at the University of Vermont, Delaney-Megeso explained current efforts to preserve historic indigenous artifacts at the ferry landing near the Champlain Bridge. Layers of textile have been placed over the ground, followed by crushed stone, and then pavement, as part of the road construction. This was designed to protect the objects underneath, said John Crock, an archaeology professor at UVM.
Noting the site has always been a trade center, Crock said archaeologists found artifacts dating back 9000 years.
“This is a way of safeguarding our ancestors and preserving history,” said Delaney-Megeso. “And it could serve as a model for other projects.”
But he is just as interested in his tribe’s future as its past. Delaney-Megeso noted not a single Native American serves on the state’s regional Act 250 commissions, a situation he hopes will change — with or without legislation.
“I’m trying to create a door so other people can walk through it,” Delaney-Megeso said. “If the bands get recognition and the [VCNAA] gets empowered, then I’ve done my job. It is my fervent desire to have the Native American affairs commission achieve better standing to serve its peoples in the most democratic way possible.”
The Vermont Public Service Board dismissed a case involving a long-running dispute  between Comcast and the Regional Educational Technology Network (RETN) over how public- access money is being spent in Chittenden County.
The case was dismissed after Comcast and RETN agreed to a five-year contract that ensures educational access programming and related services will be provided to Chittenden County and parts of Addison County.
Resolution of the dispute, which began in January , centered on Comcast’s claim that RETN was misspending money. An extensive financial review cleared the public-access operation.
“We are pleased to have secured full funding for the programming and services we provide our communities and cable subscribers,” said RETN spokesperson Doug Dunbebin.
The RETN dispute is not an isolated incident.
As “Fair Game” reported earlier this year, Comcast has taken other small nonprofit community-access stations to task, because it doesn’t believe its Certificate of Public Good requires it to fund web-based programming.
Comcast has rebuffed efforts to negotiate these statewide concerns. It would rather take on each channel case individually, said Rob Chapman, president of the Vermont Access Network, which represents Vermont’s public, educational and governmental channels — PEG, for short.
The RETN dispute cost the nonprofit about $100,000 to fight, said Chapman. Smaller PEG channels could face Comcast-related bills from $5000 to $20,000.
“We are concerned that Comcast is trying to negotiate away the obligations in their [Certificate of Public Good] by focusing on these issues with individual organizations who do not have the kind of resources necessary to defend themselves,” said Chapman.
It’s worth noting: The giant cable provider just spent $30 billion buying NBC.
Gov. Jim Douglas won’t have a new job title for 10 more months, but there have been some changes in his staff.
Former Natural Resources Secretary Elizabeth “Wibs” McLain will join the governor’s team as a “special assistant”  to help with legislative affairs and act as an agency liaison.
Secretary of Civil and Military Affairs Heidi Tringe will take on the role of deputy chief of staff, replacing Dennise Casey. Casey is leaving for a job with the Republican Governors Association.
David Coriell, a special assistant, will serve as secretary of Civil and Military Affairs and communications director, a position Casey also held.
Rearranging the deck chairs?
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