By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public Radio, Feb. 20, 2014
The state’s largest union is throwing its weight, and its money, behind the push for single-payer health care. And the move by the Vermont teachers union lends considerable strength to what will be the heaviest political lift of Gov. Peter Shumlin’s career.
Labor groups have had good reason to be skeptical of single-payer. Their members already tend to enjoy premium health insurance benefits. And many union members fear they’ll be asked to pay more money for fewer benefits under Shumlin’s plan for a publicly financed system.
But as those organizations learn more about life under the Affordable Care Act, their strategic calculations are shifting. And the union that represents Vermont teachers is now going all-in on single payer.
“We know that the rest of the country is looking at Vermont to see how well it does,” says Martha Allen, president of the Vermont-NEA. “And if we don’t make it work, I don’t know where it will be able to work.”
Allen heads a politically powerful union that has 12,000 members, and covers more than 40,000 people through its insurance program, called the Vermont Education Health Initiative. The Vermont-NEA has long said it supports the move toward public financing in concept. But now it’s joining the push for single-payer in earnest.
With financial support from its national umbrella, the Vermont-NEA has committed $80,000 over the next six months to staff a single-payer advocacy organization based in Montpelier. The NEA spent another $35,000 on a poll that it says spotlights continuing support for single-payer among the Vermont electorate, even after the glitch-filled rollout of the state’s new online insurance exchange.
According to the poll, which was conducted by the Boston firm Kaley & Company, 51 percent of survey respondents say they support single payer, even when told that it might result in the largest tax increase in state history. 43 percent said they opposed the plan. The poll conducted between Jan. 14 and 16.
Peter Sterling will serve as the director of the new advocacy group, called Vermont Leads. It’s neither the first time Sterling has served in this capacity, nor the first go-round for Vermont Leads. In 2012, a chapter of the Service Employees International Union spent about $100,000 to create the group, which performed education and outreach in support of the single-payer mission. The organization went dormant when the SEIU lost its bid to represent home care workers in the state, and subsequently ended its financial support for the single-payer initiative.
The money from the NEA has resurrected the organization, which Sterling says will function in a similar fashion as it did under its previous iteration.
Sterling says the margin of support shown in the poll is even more impressive given that a plurality of respondents said they think they’ll pay more for health insurance under the single-payer plan. Sterling says the results show that it’s the single-payer ethic that voters support, even if the program doesn’t benefit them financially.
“The most important conclusion from the poll I think is that consistently Vermonters support moving toward a universal, publicly funded health care system, even when it’s described as the largest tax increase in history, even when they realize they may not personally benefit,” Sterling says.
The NEA’s advocacy for single-payer will be critical in the Statehouse, where the union exerts serious influence over the Democratic majority that Shumlin will need to approve his public financing plan. House Speaker Shap Smith says advocacy from the Vermont-NEA on this issue will help underscore the need for reform.
“I think it’s a big deal for an organization that has health benefits now amongst its members to acknowledge that we need to have access for everyone, portability of benefits, and fairness for all Vermonters in access to health care,” Smith says.
Vermont Leads is a nonprofit advocacy group that is prohibited from engaging in electioneering. But Allen says the Vermont-NEA could flex its political might on the single-payer issue as Vermont heads into the last election cycle before Shumlin’s public financing plan will be voted on by the Legislature.
“We are in an election year and so as the months go on and more work is done on Green Mountain Care, with Vermont Leads, that’ll come into play a little bit more,” Allen says.
The poll surveyed 502 Vermont voters. Tom Kiley, head of the firm that conducted the poll, said the survey methodology ensured representative samples for both counties and gender. The poll used random-digit dialing to reach land line users, in addition to calls to cell phones, according to Kiley.
Kiley & Company is a Democratic polling firm that has done work nationally but is best known for its extensive work with Massachusetts candidates, including former Sen. Ted Kennedy and current U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Waren. Kiley says he served as lead pollster for John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign.
The poll guages support for single-payer in different ways, each time generating different results. At the outset of the survey, respondents are asked, without prompting about what the plan entails, “are you inclined to favor or oppose a single-payer system for Vermont, or do you feel you don’t know enough about it yet to have a firm opinion.”
The question yielded favorable responses from 24 percent of respondents; 25 percent said they would be inclined to oppose the program, and 51 percent said they aren’t sure.
Public opinion shifts dramatically when the question includes varying descriptions of what single-payer would entail. Sterling says even when the description includes warnings that some believe single-payer would result in the largest tax increase in state history, the plan nonetheless gets majority support from respondents.