By Drs. David Himmelstein and Steffie Woolhandler

The proposed Vermont health reform legislation includes two distinct elements: clear plans to rapidly implement the deeply flawed federal health reform (PPACA) in Vermont; and a vague outline of a single-payer plan that might be implemented six years hence if the feds were to allow it.

In contrast to the bill’s detailed prescription for implementing PPACA, the sections on the single-payer plan leave much to the imagination, punting decisions on critical issues to a board appointed by the governor. It seems that the board is to determine whether critical services like long-term care are included in the benefits package; whether co-payments will be affordable or daunting; how hospitals, home care agencies, nursing homes and doctors will be paid; and whether capital funds are to be allocated separately from operating funds (the sine qua non of effective health planning). And the bill includes no plan for funding the single-payer program.

Happily, the legislation would enroll all Vermont residents (regardless of immigration status) in the single-payer plan. In one critical area the bill seems to come down on both sides of the fence. While it would proscribe the sale of private coverage that duplicates the public plan if the single-payer program is implemented, it would also allow employers to opt out of the plan.

Finally, its uncritical embrace of the latest health policy fad – Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) – would bolster the role of private insurers, at least in the short run. The bill calls for pilot projects in which an ACO would receive capitation payments which would cover all care for a defined population, including long-term care, prescription drugs, etc. Insurers are the only organizations in Vermont with the financial muscle to take on such “full risk” contracts.

In sum, the Vermont bill evidences good intentions and bold promises, but leaves the make-or-break decisions about restructuring health care financing for a later date. This “kick the can down the road” approach is worrisome in a state where the governor and Legislature change every two years, and where multi-stage health reforms have been enacted in the past, only to see the planned reforms abandoned without being implemented. In this context, ongoing mobilization of a broad-based single-payer movement will be critical. Such a mobilization can bolster the governor’s evident enthusiasm for the single-payer project and maintain the courage of the Legislature as they face the inevitable onslaught of corporate opposition to real health care reform.

Drs. Himmelstein and Woolhandler are co-founders of Physicians for a National Health Program.